Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Comfort with Strangers - Xanadu, The Music Man, Leap of Faith - Musical Reviews

Xanadu - The Max at Signature Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington D.C.) - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar, Book by Douglas Carter Beane, based on the film.
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Runs until July 1st 2012

The Music Man - Finchlander Theatre at Arena Stage - Washington, D.C. - **** (out of 5 stars)
Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Wilson, Story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Molly Smith, Choreographed by Parker Esse
Runs until July 22nd 2012

Leap of Faith - St. James Theatre - Broadway, New York City, NY - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight based on the film.
Directed by Christopher Ashley, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Now closed.

A stranger comes into town, tries to sell them on a dream, stirs things up, and inadvertently makes things better. (If only 110 in the Shade were still running somewhere). A con-man stops off in River City, a con-man gets stuck in the Kansas city town of Sweetwater, Greek muse comes down to Venice Beach, all to sell them on a dream. A dream of kids playing in a marching band, dreams of miracles and rain during a drought, dreams of creating art in 1980's LA.

Xanadu is possibly one of the most ridiculous musicals ever to make it to Broadway. Its light, featherweight story is based on, apparently, one of the worst films in film history. Yet, with a soundtrack that became a hit for Olivia Newton John and Electric Light Music Orchestra, the musical adaptation by Douglas Carter Beane uses its catchy and famed songs and flips the weak story and turns it into the musicals biggest strengths.

With a giant wink and purposeful camp amped up for the stage, Beane and a proper director, here, Matthew Gardiner taking charge, must let the story soar in its silliness, letting us in on the purposeful badness. A story of a Greek muse coming to 1980's LA to help a young troubled dude help achieve his dream of complete artistic achievement; opening a roller disco. Adding to that, Beane throws an extra wink, making the Greek muse Clio take on an Australian persona on earth (ahem, Olivia anyone?) with the name Kira, as she must inspire Sonny Malone, all while two evil sisters try to derail her efforts, all while Sonny and Kira fall into a forbidden love. Oh yah, and on top of that, Kira is on roller skates.

The Signature Theatre cast takes the goofy musical and has a (disco) ball with it. Actually, many disco balls with it, and Erin Weaver (an actress apparently known for serious roles in dramas) is pitch perfectly ludicrous as Clio/Kira. Weaver hits the right comedic notes in a cute and lovely way, and all while her strong voice sings classics "Magic", "Suddenly", "I'm Alive", and "Xanadu".

Charlie Brady is awesome as the dopey but lovable Sonny Malone, a short-shorts wearing Californian dude who just wants to create art while rocking out. Brady is easily lovable and fills in those short-shorts nicely, with a voice that is as muscular as his arms.

Ayanna Hardy (replacing Nova Y. Payton in my performance) and Sherri L. Edelen (Hairspray, Walter Cronkite is Dead) seem to have a ball as the evil sisters, while Harry A. Winter (also Hairspray and numerous other Signature roles) gives a full and lovely performance as Danny Maguire, an older gentleman who fondly remembers a muse-like Goddess whom he fell in love with in his youth. Mark Chandler, Jamie Eacker, and Nickolas Vaughan are delightfully silly as fellow muses, while Kellee Knighten Hought sounds godly in a solo moment during all the absurdity.

The Music Man is the classic that I've never actually seen, but one so famous that it's hard not to know the story of a Prof. Harold Hill who blows into town, selling the people on dreams of a marching band for the kids, while whipping up the creative juices in the older folks, all in an attempt to take their money as they purchase "useless" things from the traveling salesman. Meanwhile, a stubborn librarian Marion, refuses to buy into the con until of course, she does, convinced by the new confidence in her much younger brother with a lisp. Love ensues, hijinks happen, kids dance, the truth comes out, before a nice tidy ending

To be honest, as my first time seeing the full show and watching the scenes that fills the gaps in between the famous moments, I found some slow moments (particularly in the first act) and an ending that works wonderfully as a story but disappointing as a musical, when the show pretty much ends abruptly after the final punchline. We are left with a final feeling of love, acceptance and hope, a perfect moment for a final rousing musical number, and then the bows begin and The Music Man as a musical just misses the mark of perfection.

Luckily, Arena Stage's Artistic Director Molly Smith has assembled and directed a creatively satisfying and delightful production of The Music Man. With Choreographer Parker Esse by her side, whipping up an amazing set of steps, the top notch ensemble performs the most thrilling group dance numbers with a glorious sounding chorale that just seems to explode out from the tiny Finchlander stage and reverberated back in an acoustic dream. Just like Arena Stage's revelatory Oklahoma!, Price and Esse have used the small in-the-round stage to bring a wonderful full-bodied experience with some of the best dancing and singing one could hope for in musical theatre.

The backbone of the show lies in Marion the Librarian, and with Kate Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow, She Loves Me, White Christmas) cast, she automatically brings an astounding and clear voice, a classy and loveliness perfect for the role that makes Marion avoid seemingly bitter or harsh while still sitting outside of the lines, staying cynical on the new con-man in town. Baldwin also brings an audience, helping Arena Stage sell out most of the performances already, and for someone who isn't a movie or even TV star, that's quite a testament to Baldwin's presence and musical talents.

Playing opposite to Marion, suave con-man Prof. Harold Hill is filled by Burke Moses (The Sound of Music, Beauty and the Beast) who I saw (way-back when) originating Gaston, and he still carries that aura of ego, sneakiness and charm that pretty much helps fill Hill's shoes. While his scenes with Baldwin feel a bit cold (which, I know is part of the story and maybe the inherent problems with our expectations in a musical), and feel a bit flat compared to his scenes with the larger cast, Moses' voice is still full and strong and his rapport with the townsfolks and teenage kids is wonderful and convincing.

The strong ensemble has too many great performances to all name, but Will Burton (above centre) and Juliane Godfrey make tremendous Arena Stage debuts as the young couple Tommy and Zaneeta. Donna Migliaccio (Ragtime) is lovely as Mrs. Paroo, Marion's mother, and Ian Berlin is absolutely adorable as the stuttering Winthrop Paroo, Marion's much younger brother. Barbara Tirrell (below, centre) is particularly hilarious as the Mayor's wife Eulalie Mackenzie Shinn.

As Arena Stage did with Oklahoma!, they've fully enveloped the Finchlander with lighter yellowed tones with muted colours that automatically generate a nostalgic feel, with beautiful set designs by Eugene Lee and coordinated with Judith Bowden's costumes, and lighted by Dawn Chiang. And as with Oklahoma!, the small theatre seemed to only amplify the glorious sounds from the cast and orchestra, with a sound design by Timothy M. Thompson that deserves a special mention.

While it's not as revelatory as their Oklahoma!, Arena's The Music Man is still a splendid solid production with such a joyous cast that I was ready to join the band and step right into those red marching uniforms!

Leap of Faith has already closed on Broadway after a brief run at the St. James Theatre. I first saw the new musical in Los Angeles, where, while flawed, showed lots of promise, especially with a wonderful and strong second act that brings down the house with emotionally moving tunes by Alan Menken and a showcase for an amazing cast of Raúl Esparza, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Krystal Joy Brown, Leslie Odom Jr., Kendra Kassenbaum, and Nicolas Barasch got to show off their vocal and emotional power in some powerhouse songs. Originally directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the show had a beautiful lyrical feel with golden tones and lyrical ballet choreographed sequences that smoothed out the sequences to tell the story of a con-man, along with a crew, try to con a struggling town from all their money with promises of rain during a drought, and heavenly miracles straight from God. The L.A. production also had headliner Brooke Shields who brought an automatic warmth to the role of the cynical townsperson who doubts the con-man (Sound familiar? It really IS The Music Man without the marching band uniforms and adding in 110 in the Shade's hope for rain).

The L.A. production had major problems (particularly an unfocused first act) and many didn't like Rob Ashford's lyrical over-choreographed tendencies, but it had hope and I had faith that it could become a very strong and well-loved musical. The major glaring problem though was Brooke Shield's singing voice. As lovely as she was in her acting, her voice seemed particularly weak and strained when up next to Raúl Esparza's while singing Menken's vocally challenging songs.

So on the way to Broadway, they ditched star Brooke, filled her role with a barely known Broadway actor (yay! quality over fame, right?), fiddled with the book, the songs, the characters, and replaced the director/choreographer in a bid to fix the show for the better. With Christopher Ashley (Xanadu Broadway) now helming the project and Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, Next to Normal), new sets, and the amazing cast back in their roles (minus Nicholas Barasch because he grew up out of the young tween role during the transfer), the new Leap of Faith musical (based on the Steve Martin movie no one I know ever saw) was on its way to Broadway success.

Then the new version opened and whatever elements they had fixed, only made things that originally worked, worse. Characters were streamlined, combining the female love-interest and the Sheriff role into one, but it gave the lead female role an even harder edge to overcome, and not softened by Jessica Phillips (Priscilla) in the role. Songs seemed butchered, with one of my favorite songs "When Your Faith Is Strong Enough" cut in half right when it should have been building momentum into the song and into the climax of the story. New songs were added that could have been cut right away, and characters felt even less developed than before as the creative team added a useless church revival framing device (to frame a story about a church-revival huckster) and soliloquies to the audience that gained no sympathy for the already sleazy characters. Trujillo's choreography repeated his Jersey Boys work that felt detached from Menken's music, while Ashley's direction, the ugly new sets and overall feel to the revised show made it feel cold and soulless. Even Esparza felt dispirited, giving his usual vocal power but phoning in his passion. A total amiss especially during "Jonas' Soliloquy", a beautiful breakdown 11-o'clock number that could have (finally) locked his Tony Award.

The worst part is that I KNOW there is a great show within and in the fiddling, the new creative team only made things worse, not letting Menken's beautiful score breathing room in this revised version of The Music Man, that I thought still worked in its L.A. run (even with the clunky first act). Alas, the show now enters the Tony race as one of the shortest runs for a Best Musical nominated show which it basically got because the nominators disliked the other new musicals even MORE. Still, despite its numerous problems, seeing Lewis-Evans, Brown, Kassenbaum, and Odom Jr. tear apart "Are You On the Bus", or hearing the cast sing the title song "Leap of Faith", still brings me a joy that cannot be explained, and I jump right back on the bus.

Xanadu photos by Scott Suchman 

The Music Man and Leap of Faith photos by Joan Marcus 
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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