Friday, March 26, 2010

Theater reviews: Three shows demonstrate strength of South Florida season

Tom Beckett, Bret Shuford and Tari Kelly in Anything Goes.

By Hap Erstein

Depression-era escapism proves to still be potent entertainment as Cole Porter’s 1934 enduring hit Anything Goes splashes across the stage of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

Surely it cannot be because of the flimsy story line, even if it got a major overhaul in 1987 by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, who simply added new wince-inducing jokes.

No, the material works almost entirely because of the martini-dry Porter score, which boasts such pop standards as I Get A Kick Out of You, You’re the Top, Friendship, It’s De-Lovely and the title number. And the Maltz version works on the strength of its buoyant cast and the tap-happy production numbers, directed and choreographed by the endlessly inventive Marcia Milgrom Dodge.

For what it is worth, the story takes place aboard an ocean liner, populated by a stowaway Wall Street apprentice, the girl he loves who is betrothed to an upper-class British twit, an evangelist-turned-nightclub-singer, her four blonde backup girls, a low-ranking crook on the Public Enemies list and a celebrity-obsessed ship crew. Of course, mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences, hokey disguises and an epidemic of romance ensues.

But don’t let the flimsy plot get in the way of your enjoyment. Concentrate instead on Tari Kelly (Reno Sweeney), a dead ringer for Christine Baranski, with a similarly dry comic delivery and a belter’s way with a song. Deft comic Tom Beckett (mobster Moonface Martin) mines his wheezy material for plenty of laughs, while Richard Vida and Catherine Walker are aptly toothsome and bland as the young lovers.

It is too bad that Dodge could not bring her recently shuttered Broadway revival of Ragtime, or something with a similar weight, to the Maltz. But as fluff goes, this Anything Goes is effervescent sure-fire entertainment.

ANYTHING GOES, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday. Tickets: $40-$59. Call: (561) 575-2223.

* * *
Steve Gouveia, Joseph Leo Bwarie,
Ryan Jesse and Matt Bailey in Jersey Boys.

Four years ago, Jersey Boys sneaked onto Broadway, expected to be just another lazy “jukebox musical,” a catalogue of song hits by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons clumsily grafted onto a Behind the Music press release biography of the group.

Of course, it was instead the show that demonstrated that “jukebox” did not have to be a pejorative, thanks to a compelling script full of Garden State attitude by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice -- both musical theater neophytes -- taut, cinematic staging by Des MacAnuff and a cast that was as capable with the dramatic script as they were replicating the The Four Seasons’ signature sound.

After winning the 2006 Best Musical Tony Award, road companies became inevitable and it is a relief to report that the same care was taken to produce a first-rate touring show, continuing through this week at the Kravis Center.

The show divides neatly into four sections -- four seasons, get it? - each narrated by one of the four members of the group that go through the uneasy rise, sudden success, constant ego battles and resentments that mark their previously little-known saga. And of course, their ups and downs are accented by the Four Seasons’ soundtrack-of-our-lives song trunk -- numbers like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, My Eyes Adored You, Oh, What a Night and on and on, that could have motored a far less gripping story.

Jersey Boys takes its time chronicling the group’s beginnings, but about an hour into the show it all clicks into place with an explosive appearance on American Bandstand, as The Four Seasons and their high-pitched, nasal lead singer Valli deliver their career-making number, Sherry. From there, at least until the squabbling starts, their upward climb is propelled by a string of hits, each with its four-part precision choreography by Sergio Trujillo.

Just as the group was soon overshadowed by Valli, the musical belongs to diminutive Joseph Leo Bwarie, who has the acting chops and freakish vocal range to be a very convincing Valli. Still, Matt Bailey, Steve Gouveia and Ryan Jesse each get their spotlight moments as his back-up singers, with Bailey a standout as abrasive, irresponsible group originator Tommy DeVito.

You just know that other pop groups have noticed the success of Jersey Boys and are readying their own musicals, not a happy prospect. Until the market becomes flooded, go enjoy Jersey Boys and notice how well-crafted it is.

JERSEY BOYS, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. Tickets: $35-$90. Call: (561) 832-7469 or (800) 572-8471.

* * *

EJ Zimmerman and Christopher deProphetis in Miss Saigon.

So what do you do after you have muzzled the naysayers and exceeded all normal expectations with a first-rate home-grown production of the epic Les Miserables, which is likely to be showered with Carbonell Awards next month? What do you do for an encore?

If you are Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse, you move on to the next challenge, another of the British mega-musicals of the 1980s -- Miss Saigon. This update of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, set against the fresh wounds of the Vietnam War, the chaos of America’s withdrawal and the result of wartime cross-cultural coitus, may be a cut below Les Miz, but it is full of heightened emotions and tragic consequences, as befits its operatic roots.

Those familiar with Butterfly will probably know what lies ahead when American soldier Chris falls in love with a Saigon bar girl named Kim, but fails in his attempt to take her home to America with him, then later learns that she has given birth to his son. What sets Miss Saigon apart from its antecedent is the character of The Engineer, a Eurasian pimp and war profiteer who will do anything to come to America, where kindred spirits will do anything for a buck.

Like most Actors’ Playhouse productions of major musicals, it strives to duplicate most of the effects of the Broadway original -- no mean feat -- rather than preconceiving the material. What director David Arisco has done is a major accomplishment, even if it has no personal stamp. Yes, scenic designer Sean McClelland and lighting wizard Patrick Tennant manage to approximate of the arrival of a helicopter on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon and other effects, but at least as impressive is the passion the cast infuses in the saga.

Arisco has predominantly cast actors who have performed Miss Saigon previously, on Broadway or in tours. That is completely understandable when he can get a Herman Sebek, deliciously oily as The Engineer, so captivating and conniving in his 11 o’clock solo of sleaze, The American Dream. Or EJ Zimmerman as the delicate Kim, with a powerful vocal instrument. A greater effort might have been made, however, to cast locally for other non-Asian roles.

Still, this is an impressive show in all respects. So now what does Actors Playhouse do for an encore?

MISS SAIGON, Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Through Sunday, April 4. Tickets: $42-$50. Call: (305) 444-9293.

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