Academics and musical theatre mavens talk of the evolution of the American musical. Well, there was similar progress bestowed upon the American musical revue. Today, the revue is a small ensemble-driven analysis of the works of a great composer. Examples are Some Enchanted Evening (Rodgers & Hammerstein), Smokey Joe’s Café (Leiber And Stoller), and, of course, Side by Side by Sondheim (you know who). But the early musical revues were grand nights of music designed to sooth the savage beast that was the Broadway audience. They usually had tiny plots designed to simply hold the music together. Today, aside from memories of Ziegfeld and White, we have Crazy For You and Anything Goes as the more perfect examples.
Rocco L. Buonpane and his Brooklyn Association for the Performing Arts invited us to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear with an old-fashioned musical extravaganza celebrating the works of the composer who – arguably – returned musical extravaganza to Broadway … Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Like the grand musical revues of almost a century ago, we have a more-than two hour night featuring more-than three dozen singers, dancers, and musicians serenading the large audience with ditties from the composer’s popular (Phantom, Cats, Superstar, Evita, JoeATD), cult favorites (Sunset Blvd, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love) and the rare and not-always-well-received (By Jeeves, Song & Dance, Whistle Down The Wind, The Beautiful Game, Woman in White). Like the revues of the days of vaudeville, you had star-turns, great moments, and missteps.
The star-turns were definitely that. Dustin Cross (the production’s choreographer) was the finest voice on the stage. Whether it was a sharp, comedic tilted-brow number like “Let’s Have Lunch” from Sunset Blvd, full-voiced powerhouses like the title song in Starlight Express, or heart-wrenching ballads like “Close Every Door” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cross displayed ease on stage and vocal strength virtually unmatched. As a dancer, he displayed the same vigor; as a choreographer, he created witty moves for a large group on a small stage. Of equal footing is Buonpane himself, who – with the hand-in-pockets ease of an old thespian – captivated his crowd with showstoppers from Woman in White and Evita. Christopher Lee Short, William Doyle, Rob Bradbury, and George Tsalikis also supplied great range, humor & charisma, and a sense of power. Tsalikis – a theatre/rock crossover artist with a new CD out (see related article in OuterStage) – could have had more to do in this show, as he is a recognizable face and voice. Finally, Celine Rosenthal’s rendition of “Tell Me On Sunday” from the original version of Song & Dance was wonderfully sung, deep and emotional, and totally believable. It was a highpoint of the night. And speaking of dance and highpoints, Elizabeth Brocsious – lead dancer in most numbers – was absolutely brilliant. Her face reflected each song’s mood, her acumen as a dancer was obvious in her looks-easy-but-we-know-how-hard-it-is moves, and the joy that radiated from her was infectious.
The night was filled with memorable moments including solos by Carly Howard, Erica Vasaturo, and Nadine Djoury who stepped out of the ensemble to deliver some fine renditions of rare tunes; Jayme Stevens, whose opening piece framed by the entire chorus was delightful, Nadine Jacques especially potent as Evita in “Buenos Aires,” Dawn Barry’s unique rendition of “Memory” – playing the strength not the emotion – and Charlie Eichler hitting the high notes of Whistle Down the Wind and the closing tune of Joseph…
Missteps were few but definitely there as the inevitable couple of performers chose to spend their stage time running for the center mic, over-singing and upstaging, and pulling out shticks and tricks to prove their charm when simply singing what was given to them would have done the trick.
Down in the pit, musical director Jake Lloyd – the third partner in the triumvirate of arbiters of this production led a tight and expert orchestra (including violinist Daisuke Suzuki, whose contribution created true magic), and made dozens of singers sound like a perfect unit in ensemble pieces and each soloists sound angelic. He also wrote the unique orchestrations for this production. Rumor has it Mr. Lloyd is a composer in his own right. If his mastery with the orchestrations is any indication of his own musical prowess, then one could expect this [Jake] Lloyd to prove competition to that Lloyd [Webber].
The technical aspect of the show needed work. There was a hint of curtains and patterns on an interesting amalgam of stairs and platforms – too much. The stairs themselves were fascinating but the curtains kept obscuring singers when they were under them. The lighting was a series of cross fades and spots – too much. With a ton of people and interchanging moments, a simply wash of light would have been sufficient and saved the problem of actors stepping out of a too-small spot. The costumes were OK … then too much. Everyone was dressed in black and looked like they were attending an artistic party or gathering – pretty cool. However, there were moments when suddenly there would an isolated ensemble member with too much jewelry or a bright color or an interesting accessory that would draw the audience’s attention unfairly. One gent was heard to say “nice dress” to his escort in the audience. Considering the soloist was a man at that point proved that the attention was not correct. The mics were a big issue. Body mics were shared oddly, the volume on the three standing mics was uneven, hand-helds were there, sometimes not. Maybe – next time – just the stairs, a wash of light, the orchestra to the side, and no mics might be the way.
There was indeed one negative to speak of – the lack of plot. As mentioned, a thread-bare plot would be employed for shows like this back in the day. A silly “hey, let’s do a show” or declamatory “and our next number…” motif… anything. Even doing the shows in sections might have helped. Going from song to song might not be a problem if this was Cole Porter, where every song was its own entity or Rodgers & Hammerstein, in which 90% of their material is well-known (OK, maybe not Pipe Dream, State Fair, or Me & Juliet) but when you have a composer with productions that did not run long, ran only in England, or were rewritten by the time it arrived on our shores, you run the risk of confusing your crowd. Again, The audience seemed to forgive the lack of story and settled in for a pleasing concert.