Musical Theatre Guild takes rarely performed Broadway gems, casts them with L.A.’s finest musical theater triple-threats, rehearses them in a mere twenty-five hours, and performs them once or twice—almost fully staged though book-in-hand. The resulting “concert staged readings” have ended up being some of the most exciting shows I’ve reviewed over the past two years, most notably last year’s Kiss Of A Spider Woman and Violet, the latter of which featured Shannon Warne’s (one-night-only) Musical Theater Performance Of The Year.  Even “problematic” shows like Seesaw have been worth a look-see, thanks to MTG’s superb casts, directors, choreographers, and musicians.

There are, however, some Broadway shows best left forgotten and (in this reviewer’s opinion), Stop the World – I Want to Get Off is one of them.  Though its MTG stars and supporting players give their all (i.e. do their accustomed fine work), this is one Broadway show that has me quoting Hal David and asking, “What’s it all about?”

Back in 1962, Stop The World – I Want To Get Off brought its just-turned-31 star Anthony Newley to Broadway, and an auspicious debut that was.  Not only did Newley co-write the book, music, and lyrics (with Leslie Bricusse), he directed and starred in what was virtually a one-man show.  Stop The World played 555 performances, Newley himself got four Tony nominations, and the score spawned three big hit songs, “Gonna Build A Mountain,” “Once In A Lifetime,” and “What Kind Of Fool Am I?”  Newley, who died in 1999, was a one-of-a-kind performer who could enrapture audiences simply by being himself, or in this case a version of himself, and a listen to the original cast recording reveals a signature voice that makes covers of his songs pale by comparison.

Stop The World – I Want To Get Off is nothing if not hard to categorize. Its actors dress entirely in black, their features obscured by highly stylized clown make-up. We follow its lead character, a little chap named Littlechap, from birth to death, with stops at childhood, marriage, fatherhood, and grandfatherhood, the action often brought to a halt with Littlechap’s cry of “Stop the world!,” whenever life proves too difficult for him.  Littlechap marries a woman named Evie, the same actress later returning as the other women Littlechap becomes involved with—a Russian named Anya, a German named Ilse, and an American named Ginnie.  The remaining cast members play various supporting roles, most of which are acted entirely in mime, not particularly one of my favorite genres. Newley and Bricusse’s book alternates between burlesque humor and dead serious allegory, as it follows Littlechap up the ladder of life, including his election to British parliament and eventual retirement and death, the grim reaper making several appearances.

Unlike more often revived 60s musicals, Stop The World hasn’t particularly stood the test of time with its many “contemporary” references (to Kennedy, to the Cold War) now coming across as merely dated.

That being said, the entirely MTG-member cast do their very darnedest with the material they are given, under Douglas Clayton’s capable direction, ably assisted by Ken Werther.

As Littlechap, Justin Robertson has the toughest assignment of any MTG actor in memory. The entire production revolves around Littlechap, he has almost all the dialog including many soliloquies, and the bulk of the songs.  Though Robertson seemed a tad nervous on the first of only two scheduled performances, and did stumble a bit on some of his lines, this was entirely understandable, even for an actor on book, considering the daunting demands of the role. Robertson deserves high marks for his lovely work here.  His renditions of Newley’s signature songs, as well as lesser known numbers like “Lumbered” and “Mumbo Jumbo,” are first-rate, particularly the iconic, climactic “What Kind Of Fool Am I?,” easily the most powerful moment in the production.

The always fabulous Tracy Lore plays all four women in Littlechap’s life, roles that won Anna Quayle the Broadway production’s only Tony Award, and she is sensational as always (though a little of Nazi Ilse and the accompanying goose-steps of the ensemble goes a long way). The divine Miss Lore sings the show’s other relatively well-known song, “Typically English,” in four different versions and four different accents—to audience applause every time.

This is the first MTG production in memory cast entirely with MTG members: Robin De Lano, Jennifer Gordon, Heather Hoppus-Werner, Melissa Lyons, Brandon Michael Perkins, Jeffrey Polk, and Jennifer Shelton, and a more talented septet you won’t find.  They deserve particular credit for having learned so many pantomime and dance moves (courtesy of the inventive Joe Giamalva) in record time and for executing them like the pros they are.

Musical director Ron Colvard (on piano) leads an impeccable seven-piece orchestra, with Charlie Morillas’ trombone ably “playing” the various authority figures in Littlechap’s life (originally performed on Broadway by the bassoonist).

Stop The World – I Want To Get Off was followed in 1965 by The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, the shorter running (231 performances) but I think the more entertaining of the two, its music hall style making its (once again) allegorical tale more audience-friendly, or at least so it seemed when MTG staged it in 2006 in a production I quite enjoyed.

I may be in the minority in finding Stop The World – I Want To Get Off quite a bit of a snoozer.  There were cheers and laughs aplenty throughout Monday’s show.  In any case, regardless of how you feel about Stop The World – I Want To Get Off, MTG performers are most certainly L.A.’s crème de la crème.

—Steven Stanley
September 14, 2009
Alex Theatre, Glendale

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