A phenomenal cast of Broadway and regional theater triple threats open the  Pasadena Playhouse’s 2011-2012 season with South Street: A New Musical Comedy, directed by the multitalented Roger Castellano and choreographed by the always terrific Dana Solimando.  If only the World Premiere musical matched their talents.


Like the Broadway smash In The Heights, South Street focuses on the residents of a neighborhood in transition.  Like In The Heights, South Street introduces us to a large number of characters whose lives too are in flux.  Like In The Heights, South Street starts off with a full ensemble number celebrating this community.

Unlike In The Heights, however, South Street’s opening number generates applause rather than whoops and hollers, and though its characters are colorful, if we come to care about them, it has everything to do with a baker’s dozen terrific lead performances and not nearly enough to do with Craig Carlisle’s book or Richard Addrisi’s songs.

While it’s true Addrisi did indeed co-write “Never My Love,” one of the best and most remembered songs of the 1960s, that’s about the only title likely to ring a bell in the Addrisi Brothers’ song catalog, and those Richard has composed for South Street, while pleasant to listen to, are simply too generic for a Broadway-caliber musical.  The love song “You And I” tells us nothing about the characters whose love it’s expressing.  “Best Of Friends” could be just about any duo’s buddy song.  As for Act Two solos like “Love Of A Lifetime,” “How About Me,” “Forever On My Mind,” and “I Believe,” the cheers they inspire are mostly thanks to the oh-so talented Valerie Perri, Lowe Taylor, Brent Schindele, and Maria Eberline, who perform them.  In The Heights’ show-opening, full-ensemble title song lets us know we’re in for something great.  South Street’s considerably blander show opener, “Are We Set For Tonight,” sets a less promising tone.

Then there’s Carlisle’s book.  If original books are tricky and rare, it’s probably because a successful musical generally needs a story capable of standing alone, whether based on a straight play (“My Fair Lady”), or a movie (“The Producers”), or a book (“Gypsy”).  Take away all the songs from the highly original In The Heights and you’d still have an engrossing straight play.  Take away the songs from South Street and you’re left with a wispy tale of a former strip club in danger of going out of business, a bridesmaid who longs to be a bride, a man who finally decides that there are other fabrics than polyester, and a rock star who rekindles an old love when he returns to town after a sixteen-year absence—hardly enough plot for either a straight play or a musical (unless it’s Hair or Cats).

Not that South Street isn’t worth a look-see.   Not only does director Castellano make the very most of the material he’s been given, missing this show would mean missing out on terrific performances, all-around, topnotch choreography (including more pole dancing than you’ve probably ever seen on a legitimate stage), and a razzle-dazzle production design.

Broadway’s Eberline combines beauty, charisma, and some powerful pipes as South Street heroine Cloe, whose inheritance of the abovementioned club from its late owner Sammy is jeopardized by the Two Stooges, aka the Pachagalope Brothers, who plan to collect on Sammy’s boxful of markers by turning it into a Hooters knockoff.

Before you can say flashback, we’ve time traveled back from South Street’s 1997 “present” to a big-shouldered, big-haired, side-ponytailed 1980 (never mind that this is about half a decade before those Fashion Don’ts came into vogue) and a very young Cloe’s arrival at Sammy’s, where she meets its owner (Tom Shelton), his wife Sybil (Perri), their young son Norton (Andy Scott Harris), Sammy’s polyester-loving buddy Arnie (Ezra Buzzington) and best friend Lou (Harrison White), waitress Lydia (Taylor), and rock star wannabe Johnny (Schindele).  The Rabbit In The Moon (no, that’s not a misprint) inspires a song (“Look To The Rabbit”) and South Street’s first annual Full Moon Festival.  (Apparently in South Philly, the moon is only full-sized once a year.)  At some point in the proceedings, Sammy’s friends concoct a Sammy-sized look-alike mannequin, a convenient Act Two reminder of the original once the real Sammy has met his maker.  Also somewhere along the way, Cloe and Johnny fall for each other, only to have Johnny head off west to California for a chance at rock stardom too good to pass up, even if it means leaving his true love behind.

Sixteen years later, rock star Johnny is back in town and greeted by old friends, including Matthew Patrick Davis as a now 6½-foot-tall Norton, the only one of the bunch who has aged more than a day.  Oh, and there’s Cloe’s bubbly fatherless 16-year-old daughter Crystal (Cassie Silva).

Act Two consists mainly of a string of solos whose sole purpose seems to be to give Perri, Taylor, Davis, Schindele, and Silva their moment in the spotlight, and a dance contest featuring dazzling Solimando moves by couples Susann Fletcher and John Massey, Sylvie Gosse and Estevan Valdes, and Stefan Raulston and Debbie Zaltman. As to how various plot threads are tied up and whether Sammy’s Place is saved from an ignominious end, this reviewer’s lips are sealed.

Schindele once again proves his leading man chops in a terrific performance as Barry Manilow-esque rock star Johnny Blue, the blond dazzler perfectly matched with raven-haired stunner Eberline.  It goes without saying that Perri makes for a fabulous Sybil and the same applies to perennial scene-stealer White as Lou.  (Can either of these musical theater vets not be fabulous?)  Buzzington makes a show-stopping return to triplethreatdom as Arnie, Taylor and Davis are a splendid, vocally strong romantic duo (with Harris a winning presence as Davis’s younger self), and Shelton is warm and wonderful as Sammy.  Jim Holdridge and Benjamin Goldsmith do their slapstick best as the Pachagalope brothers, and Peter Siragusa is an amusingly decrepit Papa Pachagalope.  As for Silva, her performance as Crystal provides further proof that a recent Broadway debut in Rock Of Ages is but the latest step on the road to Cassie Silva stardom.

South Street’s supremely talented ensemble is completed by Anika Bobb, Nigel Columbus, Kat Liz Kramer, Scott Kruse, Jacqueline Nguyen, Hannah Simmons, Ali Spuck, and Corey Wright.

Musical director Michael Borth conducts the top-drawer twelve-piece pit orchestra.  Scenic designer Andy Walmsley has created gorgeous Broadway-ready revolving sets which take us inside and outside Sammy’s at a spin.  Brian Monahan’s lighting design is a Technicolor treat, and the same can be said about Kate Bergh’s costumes, despite some fashion anachronisms.  Julie Ferrin’s sound design is, as always, impeccable.

Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA.  Judy Crozier is associate producer, Joe Witt production manager, and Alex Britton production supervisor.  Susie Walsh is production stage manager and TJ Kearney assistant stage manager.  Orchestrations are by Don Sebesky and Andrew Sotomayor is musical supervisor.

Following the extraordinarily promising Twist: An American Musical, South Street proves a disappointment.  At the very least, however, the Pasadena Playhouse’s latest gives Angelinos the chance to see some of Southern California’s finest triple threats strut their talented musical theater stuff—and that’s saying a great deal.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Through July. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00, Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00, Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 626 355-7529

–Steven Stanley
September 25, 2011
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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