Escondido’s Welk Resort Theatre brings back the good old-fashioned Musical Comedy Revue with its “World Premiere Revival” of Barbara Epstein’s A5678, a show which debuted at L.A.’s The Zephyr Theatre way back in 1976.

 Unlike Side By Side By Sondheim or Kander & Ebb’s And The World Goes ‘Round (revues based on the songs of a single writer or song-writing team) or a thematically linked “song cycle” like Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, A5678 (pronounced Ah 5, 6, 7, 8!) goes back to the concept made popular on Broadway from 1934 to 1968 in a series of “New Faces Of …” revues, i.e. an evening of mostly unrelated songs written by a bunch of songwriters and performed by a cast of up-and-coming triple-threats.

If the term “World Premiere Revival” comes across a tad oxymoronic, it turns out that what’s being revived at the Welk is the original A5678’s concept, one which creator-director-choreographer Barbara Epstein explains thusly: “Kids putting on a show before putting on a show, so you’re watching last minute rehearsals. The last piece you watch is actually the first number of the show they have been rehearsing for. Some of the numbers in the show are from the actual show they are putting on, and you watch them communicate with the stage manager, etc. Some of the songs are about why-can’t-he-find-a-girl-who-wants-to-be-more-than-his-best-friend [performed] in real time.”

What’s new this time around are the show’s twenty-two songs, written by a grand total of ten composers and lyricists—Billy Barnes, Suzanne Buirgy, Zina Goldrich, David Goldsmith, Faye Greenberg, Marcy Heisler, John Kavanaugh, David Lawrence, Stuart K. Robinson, and musical supervisor & arranger Gerald Sternbach. While some of these musical numbers feel like holdovers from a pre-Glee era, others have a much more contemporary feel, most notably an amusing salute to “Trader Joe’s, Costco And The 99 Cent Store.”

 Since much of what happens onstage would be unlikely to take place in the two hours before Opening Night curtain, Epstein’s concept doesn’t work as well as it sets out to. (Where is the director? Why aren’t these kids in their dressing room, putting on their makeup? Is the audience being kept out in the lobby as the cast rehearses onstage up to five minutes before curtain?) Most of the time A-5678 feels like the actual show itself, leading this reviewer to wonder if it wouldn’t work better if we simply saw the “actual performance” rather than a supposed “last minute rehearsal.”

It’s also a tad too retro, let alone improbable in a musical theater milieu, to have each and every cast coupling of the opposite-sex variety, particularly in this era of Glee and Smash and out-and-proud musical theater performers. With one very clever exception (Kavanaugh and Goldsmith’s “I’m Wildly Platonic With You”), it’s Boy + Girl all the way, a concept not likely to click with any real-life Kurts or Blaines or Santanas or Brittanys in the audience.

Still these are relatively minor nits to pick in a show that does precisely what it sets out to do—provide a showcase for eight of Southern California’s most talented triple-threats ages 18-26 performing nearly two dozen terrific songs, with bits of patter throughout and some of the most taptastic footwork this side of 42nd Street or Dames At Sea—with some Fosse-esque moves thrown in for good measure.

Songs cover a wide range of themes—romance (Kavanaugh and Heisler’s “Love Among The Cubicles”), family (Kavanaugh’s “Simple Little Lessons”), performing (Sternbach and Greenberg’s “The Theater”), bargain-hunting (Sternbach’s “Trader Joe’s, Costco And The 99 Cent Store”), taste in men (Goldrich and Heisler’s “I Want Them (Bald)”), etc. Rhythms range from jazzy to upbeat pop to balladic. Full-company numbers alternate with duets and solos, and all of the above gets performed by a cast certain to win hearts.

 Kim Dalton, Sarah Errington, A.J. Mendoza, Nathan Riley, Seth Salsbury, Natalie Storrs, Bryan Vickery, and Helena Woods each demonstrate oodles of talent and star potential, and each deserves to be singled out.

This is the sixth show I’ve seen Dalton in, A5678 showcasing the petite but giant-voiced USC alumna in a beautifully performed “Where Was The Music,” among other songs. Errington, the delightful Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre of North Coast Repertory’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, has one of the most expressive voices around, and never more so than in “You Should Have Been There,” sung to a mother too busy to attend her daughter’s show. Leading man-ready Mendoza’s effortless high notes suggest a West Side Story Tony just waiting to happen. Riley proves himself the quintessential showman in pair of duets and the showstopping “The Theatre” (opposite the equally pizzazzy Mendoza, Salsbury, and Vickery.) Salsbury segues from his swoon-worthy recent turn as Hairspray’s Link Larkin to once again demonstrate vocal prowess and charm throughout A5678. USC grad Storrs has built up quite a résumé since I first caught her in Hello Again nearly four years ago, and she’s terrific as always in her latest role, whether duetting “Ain’t Nothing Wrong With That” opposite fellow Trojan Dalton or flirting with smooth-pated audience members in “I Want Them (Bald).” Vickery follows last year’s charismatic performance as Richard Henry Lee in 1776 with another winner, his powerful Father’s Day tribute “Simple Little Lessons” an A5678 standout. Just turned 18, Woods shows off star quality galore, whether soloing A Quiet Place in an exquisite soprano or performing opposite Riley in the snappy “Talk ‘N Roll.”

Epstein directs A5678 with zing and choreographs with panache (aided by associate director/co-choreographer Ray Limon), whether getting all eight performers a tap-tap-tapping or doing graceful ballet moves “At The Barre.”

A Q-&-A segment with the audience provides some informative “Getting To Know You” moments, though it’s highly improbable that kids in their late teens/early 20’s would be familiar with Carol Burnett’s weekly chats with her ‘60s/’70s TV show audience, let alone her trademark Tarzan call.

Sternbach, musical director for the original Zephyr production, returns in 2012 to supervise music and orchestrate songs.  Musical director this time round is Justin Gray, who performs live on piano with Steve Wright on drums, the duo sounding like considerably more than just two instruments hidden somewhere backstage.

George Gonzales’ scaffolding-based set design (inspired by Mark Dunlap’s 1976 original) is inventively used by Epstein and cast and vividly lit by Jennifer Edwards-Northover, who also serves as production assistant. Janet Pitcher gets thumbs up for the cast’s “dress rehearsal” costumes and their fancier, flashier grand-finale outfits, as does Beverly George for prop design. Patrick Hoyny’s first-rate sound design insures that amped voices and instruments get a just-right mix. Crystal Burden is crew.

If audience reaction to the performance reviewed here is any indication, A5678 is likely to provide the Welk Resort Theatre with yet another hit. Though probably not edgy enough to resonate with audience members the ages of its performers, it’s a sure bet that the Welk’s older audience base will be oohing and aahing its oh-so talented cast throughout the show’s three-week run.

Welk Resort Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.

–Steven Stanley
May 27, 2012

Note: Rehearsal photos do not reflect final costume and scenic designs.

Comments are closed.