Three very different musicals were on my plate this past week: an often revived golden age classic, an early off-Broadway oddity by a composer who became a worldwide success via the House of Mouse, and one a Canadian born 2-hander which barely ran on Broadway. Here are some of my ruminations.
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, is something of a miracle. It takes a beloved Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning 1961 Broadway musical by Composer/Lyricist Frank (Guys and Dolls) Loesser, with Book principally by Abe Burrows, and restores its luster after an entertaining but muddled (and financially unsuccessful) 1967 film version (featuring Broadway cast members including star Robert “Bobby” Morse), and peppy revisal type revivals starring Matthew Broderick in 1995, and Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. The revivals and frequent regional, community theatre, and high school productions have kept this quaintly 60’s period piece in the public consciousness.
Under the astute, canny and reverential eye of director Bill Berry and ace choreographer Bob Richard, this production transports us to as close a facsimile of Broadway ’61 as I have ever seen. Even the zingy new orchestrations by the irreplaceable Bruce Monroe honor the intent and affect of the original, though the biggest ace up Berry’s sleeve nearly unerring casting of the show, in fact the best overall casting I have seen at the 5th in some years.
The quick and easy breakdown is that H2$ (a witty abbreviation coined by the 90’s revival) is about the meteoric rise of an ambitious young window washer J. Pierpont “Ponty” Finch a charming barracuda who connives his way up the ladder of a fictional big business, called Worldwide Wickets (Croquet, anyone?) Under the loving eye of secretary Rosemary Pilkington, and the disdainful scrutiny of ambitious but inept rival Bud Frump (the big bosses nephew-in-law) Finch is the perfect anti-hero, and his biggest song, the paean to self-adoration I Believe in You, is the capstone of a performance that would rank high even on Broadway. The ever-doting Rosemary is played with a delicious Mary Richards meets That Girl aplomb by the sublime Sarah Rose Davis, who straight-facedly sings that she’ll be Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm, but shows her inner grit and strength when Ponty starts casting eyes on the prize instead of on her.
Broadway vet Allen Fitzpatrick is an ideal buffoon as big boss J.B. Biggely, and smoothly shares the show’s most rousing duet, a faux college fight song to a faux college, Grand Old Ivy. Fitzpatrick has in his orbit the two funniest characters and performers on the stage, Jessica Skerritt as his affair d’amour, man-killer Hedy LaRue, and Adam Standley as the frumpiest Bud Frump imaginable. Skerritt has grown up in front of theatregoers eyes here in Seattle and vicinity, and my has she grown as an actress; in this role creating a remarkable vocal delivery that is half Carol Channing, a quarter Marilyn Monroe, and a quarter Bernadette Peters. She belts out the ridiculous love duet Love from a Heart of Gold in tandem with Fitzpatrick with great zeal, and is poured into figure flattering frocks that up her own considerable va-va-va-voom factor. Opening night aisle-sitters were comparing Standley to Bobby Van, Donald O’Connor, Danny Kaye and others, and yet he is a comic original in his own way, His Frump is a human cartoon, pursuing his quarry Finch as unsuccessfully as the Coyote did the Road Runner, singing and dancing with the zeal of Daffy Duck. Points to Bill Berry casting a new to the 5th wunderkind in this role, and surely Charles Nelson Reilly is smiling down.
Sarah Rudinoff has previously shown second banana appeal at the 5th and elsewhere, and plays Rosemary’s BFF Smitty like a dream, whether bemoaning a decaffeinated “Coffee Break”, matchmaking Ponty and Rosemary in Been A Long Day, or leading the secretarial pool through Cinderella, Darling!. Always a welcome comic support man, Jeff Steitzer is in his element as the pompous Mr. Bratt who kicks off the big, Fosse style A Secretary is Not A Toy, and another of Seattle’s comedy kingpins, Allen Galli scores a touchdown in his dual roles of Mailroom Head Twimble and CEO Wally Womper. Only Cristin J. Hubbard is rather a letdown as she fails to mine the comic possibilities of JB’s outwardly stern Executive Secretary Miss Jones, though she is on the money with her comic high notes in the show’s big finale, Brotherhood of Man.
A powerhouse ensemble is light and comically charged on their feet in the several big production numbers, and covering zingy bit roles. Musical direction by Dan Pardo is big, old-school Broadway brassy. Sets co-designed by Tom Sturge and David Sumner are sleek and ingenious, and well-matched by Robert J. Agular’s lighting designs. Rose Pederson’s costumes are in glorious Technicolor, and often as funny as the performances (Oh, those Paris Originals.) Sound design by Justin Stasiw is clean and sharp, never muffling the Loesser lyrics. H2$ really does things the company way, and to deprive yourself the fun means missing what could end up being the best musical in town this year. I rate it my equivalent of 4 Stars: MTD (Magic to Do).
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave, downtown Seattle. Go to 5thavenue.org for tickets and further information.
Weird Romance is the joint title of two one-act musicals. One of the weirder things about them is that, judging from STAGEright Theatre’s production, as well as the writing, the second is far better than the first. The difference isn’t in the scores—both have music by Alan Menken—or in the genre—both have science-fiction plots. Instead, the problem has to do with complexity. The first, and weaker, one-act is based on a story by the pseudonymous James Tiptree Jr. called The Girl Who Was Plugged In. The libretto, adapted by Alan Brennert and David Spencer, has a fairly convoluted story line, with technical demands to match. Director Brendan Mack and Josh Moore’s immersive staging (where most of the audience in this case is almost exclusively onstage and allegedly on the move) is a pale attempt at what has worked more successfully in other venues. It feels claustrophobic and largely unwatchable by us poor unfortunate souls who were seated. In contrast, the second one-act, Her Pilgrim Soul, based on an original story by Brennert and filmed for the first TV re-do of The Twilight Zone is more straightforward and thematically stronger. Director Mack widely goes back to proscenium staging here. This production contains recent revisions by the authors, but one assumes the basics remain the same.
Act One, The Girl Who Was Plugged In is a set in a not too distant future, and it focuses on a corporate chairman (Dan Posluns, woefully miscast) who decides that instead of depending on unreliable entertainers to promote his products, he’s going to create the perfect spokeswoman. In a Frankenstein-like move, his chief scientist (Samuel Jarius Petit, low-key and charming) transfers the mind of a bag lady (Jasmine Joshua) into the man-made body of a beautiful woman (Varsha Raghavan), with rather predictable consequences. Ms. Joshua makes a sympathetic sad-sack of a bag lady P. Burke, and effectively delivers my favorite song in the score Stop and See Me, a typical Menken heart-tugger, while she and the lovely Ms. Raghavan share a fine duet in Worth It. Raghavan, as the cyber-body renamed Delphi, brings a subtle delicacy to the role, and pairs well with Joshua on the duet Worth It. Andrew Murray does his yeoman best to make sense of the role of male love interest and son to the Chairman, Paul. But beyond that I couldn’t see 2/3 of the show with 75% of a packed house blocking my view.
Act Two, Her Pilgrim Soul concerns a scientist (earnestly played by Matthew Lang) who is creating holograms when he is suddenly confronted with one he didn’t design. The image starts out as a fetus, then ages at the rate of a decade a day. The scientist soon becomes intrigued by this unsummoned stranger, Nola (movingly essayed by cast standout Linnea Ingalls), and he begins spending more time at the lab and less time at home with his wife Carol (a sympathetic Tiffany Chancey), who already suspects her spouse’s affections are wavering since he has been unable to make the commitment to have a child.
These characters are flanked by the scientist’s quirk but compassionate associate Dan (a game and exuberant Noah), Dan Posluns in a small but touching role as a past connection of Nola’s, and Olivia Lee as Carol’s BFF Rebecca. The pair share the comic duet” though it seems to have wandered in from a more light-hearted show. Ingalls and Lang sound lovely in theirs shared vocal moments, but Lang needs to keep his eyes from rolling into a non-existent balcony.
Without giving more away, Her Pilgrim Soul—the title is from Yeats’ When You Are Old—makes a moving comment about living life to the fullest, even in the face of tragedy. Since Weird Romance opened off-Broadway more than a year after Ashman died of AIDS complications, it’s impossible not to interpret it as a statement of Menken’s own determination to go on.
Kudos to distinguished musical direction by Joshua Zimmerman, and some sprightly choreography by Taylor Davis. Mack’s set design is rather busy but also uninspired and his sound design with Tom Wiebe was having issues at the performance seen, which makes critiquing a lot of unfamiliar songs tough. Costumes by Cherelle Ashby and Jonelle Cornwell are largely effective.
Two one acts, two ratings. Her Pilgrim Soul a solid GTG (Good Thing Going-3 stars). The Girl Who Was Plugged In squeaks by with a SWM (Something Was Missing- 2 stars)
Weird Romance by STAGEright Theatre performs at Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave on Capitol Hill through February 20, 2016. For tickets and more go to seattlestageright.org
The Story of My Life came out of Canada in the early 90’s, briefly touched down for an undeservedly short run on Broadway in 1996, and has received scant productions since. That actors Frank Kohel and Micheal O’Hara, along with director Maria Valenzuela, even got a local production up, first at Tacoma Little Theatre as a reading, and currently at the Dukesbay Theatre in Tacoma is remarkable. This is not a vanity production. The quality of the work by all three is on a very high-level. This tear-jerker sleeper of a little musical (an original with Book and Lyrics by Brian Hill with Music by Neil Bartram) offers a 90-minute experience rare in the theatre.
The musical follows a lifelong friendship between two men, Alvin (Kohel) and Thomas (O’Hara) whose childhood bond unravels throughout their adult years as ambition and circumstance drive them apart. When Alvin passes unexpectedly, Thomas is to write and deliver the eulogy. Though a best-selling author, he finds himself at a loss to put words to his and Alvin’s story, until he receives a spectral visitation from Alvin.
Kohel is a bundle of love with an occasional wise-crack thrown in as the eternally child-like, ne’er do well Alvin who never leaves the pairs hometown, while O’Hara deftly handles more complex role as Thomas, who for all his New York success has to come to terms with the cost of severing ties with his one true lifetime friend. They sing the emotionally taxing and Sondheim style complexities of the score beautifully, whether solo or duet. Valenzuela never errs in terms of staging the show with honesty, and never yielding to song and dance clichés. There are many references in the script to It’s A Wonderful Life, Alvin’s favorite movie they watch together every Christmas, so be well advised to stock up on tissue attending.
Valenzuela also musical directed the pair admirably well, and Pamela Merrit Caldwell earns a big hand for her spot-on piano accompaniment. This is not a show for the cynical. Think of it as a conventionally linear and warmer hearted Merrily We Role Along. Neither show is really what you would call “merry” , but both are distinguished examples of shows that have found audience appreciation outside of NYC. I heartily endorse catching in its remaining weekend. My rating is a ringing MTD (Magic to Do-4 stars).
The Story of My Life runs through February 14, 2016 at Dukesbay Theater in the Merlino Arts Center, downtown Tacoma. For tickets go to brownpapertickets.com.