The M Center provides one singular sensation with its musical theater tribute

NOW THAT’S A FAMILIAR [SHOW]TUNE!

Review by Evan Meena

The American musical theater is a religion of sorts. Remembering who sang what and where; knowing the history behind each work and composer; and of course, the eternal recitation of the great tunes themselves are all holy obligations to those who worship at the Temple built by Ziegfeld, Hart, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Styne, Coleman, Bernstein, Webber and (all rise) Sondheim.

The M Center, Genesis Repertory’s award-winning performing arts training ground utilizing new age methods of drawing talent out of its students, turned in a joyous night at 440 Studios – right across from another theater temple, The Public Theater.

The rousing night featured Mary Elizabeth Micari’s musical master class students presenting familiar ditties as old as Rodgers & Hart and as new as Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater. Micari – a Broadway professional herself – coached her charges into a cohesive chorus of Broadway babes. Mason Griffin’s deft piano stylings provided power-packed backup to the bunch.

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The plot of the program was a “Babes in Arms” style, revolving around the crew of a fundraiser basically forced into performing the show itself when the stars neglect to arrive. This simple formula opened the door for easy transition from song to song and even genre to genre – depending on the demographic of the crew in question.

An usher (Ashley Chico) opened the show with a open-hearted version of “Nothing” from A Chorus Line. Ashley gave us a more modern interpretation of the 70s classic with more real feeling and a more cultured and trained tone. Her happy day face and quirky moves made for a more sympathetic character. She was followed by the lithe form of Isabella Sirota who gave us a dramatic “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. She was followed by Martin Richards in a stand-out performance of “Stars” from Les Miserables.

Continuing the Lez Miz vibe was familiar face to Genesis and the M Center, Mario Claudio. He entered the stage with a burst of great energy for a marvelous rendition of “Who Am I” from Les Miserables. Mario is a book not to be judged by the cover. The bear-ish man in size and scope holds a soft tone and engaging demeanor. He was followed by character actress, Christine Conway. Christine – usually swathed in boisterous dowager style roles — weighed in with “Losing My Mind” from Follies. Playing the memory both in voice and stature she gave us a tender rendition.

Proving it’s never too … early … we meet Alinna and Andrew Gonzalez in a number from Charlie Brown. Well, that’s their current incarnations… these pre-teens had the demeanor and delivery of George Burns and Gracie Allen. Alinna’s powerhouse voice and dancing face brought many smiles from the crowd and her brother, Andrew, was the prefect straight man, packing hilarious double-takes and stage bits.

Emmy Pai, showed her versatility with a song from recently closed The Visit. She made us laugh with broad ribald humor as a patron angry over having to listen to the “crew” sing and then joins them in a deeply moving and emotional piece.

On to the stage then came a six-foot tall model type. Nicole Anne Rapp accompanied her statuesque presence with an innocent portrayal of a stage manager with stage fright. She then sang a beautiful version of “I’ll Know” from Guys & Dolls.

After a bout of serious and sincere, Jeffrey Ng led the cast in a version of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Spamalot. Jeff gave possibly the most realistic performance of the night leaving the audience to wonder if his naive low-comedy style was all an act or not. He grins and grimaced around the lunacy of Mario Claudio as the King and a whistling Martin Richards.

The act came to close with the most rousing of numbers … Christine Conway and Emmy Pai, were joined on stage by Mary Elizabeth Micari. The three presented one of the funniest versions of “Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy I’ve ever seen. Pai, donning a red kimono, did a fan dance; Conway, attached Christmas lights to private part and lit up like a Christmas tree … pardon the pun. But it was Micari who started the craziness brilliantly. In her evening dress and heels she added a Trojan soldier helmet and a REAL trumpet – which she proceeded to play for an hilarious and boffo Miss Mazeppa.

The second act brought on the book writer and stage director of the piece, Jay Michaels. Michaels, according to his bio was a hoofer back-in-the-day. This was proven by his ease at the “Fugue for Tinhorns” with Jeff and Mario followed by a top-notch “There is a sucker born every minute” from the little known musical, Barnum, ending with a duet of him and the aforementioned Andrew Gonzalez. The elder and the junior sang “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago as if Michaels was turning over the flim flam reigns to the next generation. Andrew was – in a word – brilliant, displaying a stage charm again far beyond his years. One could almost see the extra smiles on the faces of the chorus watching him wield his cane.

After this focused section, the crew – now the cast – returned with a medley of favorites from decades gone by: Isabella Sirota gave a sincere “Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening; Emmy Pai proved that she is an obvious choice for Bloody Mary with a touching “Bali Hai”; Martin Richards hopped on a ladder for an Addams Family serenade (“The Moon and Me”).

Suddenly from the crowd a white haired man meekly expresses his desire to be part of things and – after a guitar magically appeared (hey, this IS musical theater) he sang a number from the musical, Once. This unknown fellow, furthering the plot illusion of the crew running the show, was Martin’s father, David Richards. Richards, Sr., is a former standup comedian and song writer. After his excellent and meaningful performance, maybe we won’t be a “former” any longer.

Mario Claudio continued his swashbuckler tribute with “This is the Moment” form Jekyll and Hyde (what, no Scarlet Pimpernel?); Christine, utilizing this new style of character she started in act one brought tears to all our eyes by making the familiar “Memory” from Cats, fresh. Ashley came back in a velvet doublet and solicited great guffaws with “Shy” from Once Upon a Mattress; and little Alinna Gonzalez stepped up and blew the speakers out of the place with a “Johnny One Note” that left so many of us breathless.

What’s a musical without an 11:00 number … that’s quote from their script. And suddenly an 11:00 number appeared. The title song from Phantom of the Opera. Now here is where the Genesis Repertory magic appeared. First, Mario and Nicole as the phantom and his paramour were enchanting – loving and scary at the same time – both understanding the relish of a musical theater piece – even a creepy one. Next came an amazing use of flashlights and darkness. A grass-roots concert like this will not have boats and chandeliers so instead it had a versatile chorus; each manipulating a a flashlight – serving as the shine from the water, the flicker of candlelight, even the piercing reflection of the Phantom on his pipe organ. Really clever … and very effective.

But this was jot the true eleven o’clock number, that came a moment later. The cast rallying to make sure their fearless leader, Mary Micari gets her own spotlight (or flashlight), they deflect Patty Lupone from arriving to sing the finale and hand it to Mary – who then hit one right out of the park with “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy.

Manipulating her classically trained voice to accompany the belts, growls, and meltdowns the song requires, Mary took us on the journey the song is famous for. She brought about laughter, shock, and great sadness. She tore into us with the same off-the-cuff vocality in “Gimmick” and then stabbed us in the heart with perfectly trained sounds. By the time the final “for me” was uttered from her, the audience was already on its feet in applause.

The company – according to its latest release – is moving. They will retain a new space in Brooklyn and also have a space in the Chelsea area of Manhattan, which is great. The heart and soul of this company and its players remind us why we look at musical theater with such dreamy eyes.

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