Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Musical Theatre West Production of ‘s Wonderful at the Carpenter Center


As part of their 61st season, Musical Theatre West included ‘s Wonderful, which is a show I had never heard of (I had heard of the Gershwin song), so I was looking forward to seeing what they had in store for their loyal audience. Unfortunately I came away with mixed feelings after seeing their matinee show last Sunday.

Musical Theatre West has been around since 1952, when it started out as the Whittier Civic Light Opera. Their productions evolved over time, and they went from being an all-volunteer operation to producing full seasons, currently under the capable leadership and vision of Executive Director/produce Paul Garman. Their big shows are hosted by the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center at Cal State Long Beach, which is a lovely venue with plenty of conveniently located parking.

’s Wonderful is based on the music of show business legends George and Ira Gershwin, and their estate approved the production of the show which includes 40 of their fabulous songs crammed into five mini-musicals. Each of these vignettes explores a different era of the 20th century, but none of them terribly well, which we will get into a little later. The show is the brainchild of Ray Roderick, who wrote it and has directed it around the country, including these shows for Musical Theatre West.

As far as musicals go, this has to be one of the easier ones to put on, especially because it has such a small cast with only five actors and two dance extras. But, the actors are all top-shelf performers, with veterans Rebecca Johnson, Damon Kirsche, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron, and Rebecca Spencer each getting the opportunity to take a lead. All of them have been in Musical Theatre West productions before and they are all good singers and actors that come off well in leading or supporting roles.

Fortunately they are all good dancers, as the choreography was outstanding, making good use of the stage and the sparse elements available to them. This is thanks to Charlie Williams who represents the best of the next generation of choreographers,and he is the one to watch.

The sets are minimal, with small elements coming on and off the stage for each new act, and a large video screen in the background that adds visual elements that are mostly appropriate for the on-stage action. The center piece of the show is the on-stage seven-piece orchestra, which is led by the uber-capable Musical Director/pianist Bret Simmons. The stage and bandstand were put together under the direction of Kevin Clowes, with lighting by Jeff Warner. Even though there are only five actors, there are plenty of costume changes, and Deborah Roberts did a fine job of capturing the spirit of five different decades. The Barry Manilow Cuban outfit and the lederhosen are a tad tacky, though, enough so that I felt embarrassed for Skowron, who had to wear them.

It was refreshing to have the orchestra on stage so the audience can have the opportunity to see how hard they are working, and it is a small ensemble with a pianist, one violin, a double bass, a drummer, a trombone, a trumpet and a woodwind player. The overall effect was not reduced by having only seven musicians, and they were up to the task of keeping the action moving throughout. The sound (under the direction of Brian Hsieh) was well-done for the orchestra, but there were far too many missed cues on the vocals when the microphones were not turned up in time.

With no sets everything was focused on the individual actors, so this is a show that is much better to see up close. The Carpenter is a big theater and the folks in the back missed out on a lot. Suckers!

So if the songwriting, singing, dancing, choreography and music were great, that means that there is only one big thing to gripe about, and that is the show itself. It is hard to know where to start.

For starters, the premise is weak. It is the height of laziness to come up with a “new” musical where all of the songs are culled from other shows. Don’t get me wrong – they are all very good songs, but each one has a history and a place in the musical theatre world and this is not it. I am not fond of paying to watch one man’s idea of the perfect Gershwin iTunes mix.

Secondly, the vignettes are cartoonish and are expected to do too much in the short time allotted, not to mention that the stories are so thin that the audience will poke holes through them while they are unfolding. Don’t get me started on the modern day act with the premise of a woman giving her grandson an iPod full of Gershwin hits that the cast then performs. Good songs are not enough to carry this one, and it was like being served a plate of meat without the rest of the meal. It was not very satisfying, and I expect better from Musical Theatre West.

In mitigation, this show would be good for someone who has never heard of the Gershwins so that they could experience their magical collaboration.

There is one last minor complaint before I wrap this up and that is that all of the performers deserve recognition in the program, not just the leads. The musicians and the two extra dancers (Annie Hinskton and Tyler Logan) received no credit, and that is just wrong. It does not take up that much space in the program, and what if their parents come to see the show? For shame…

If you decide to head out to see ’s Wonderful, it is playing through this weekend (closing on April 20), and seats are still available. Remember what I said about the size of the theatre and get seats as close to the front as you can.

Musical Theatre West’s 2013-2014 season only has one show left, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast from July 11 to 17. And, next season is really looking up with Once, Big Fish, Les Miserables and South Pacific on tap. Check out their website at musical.org for details about tickets and packages.


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