The Academy For New Musical Theatre follows last year’s 40 Is The New 15 with another flashback-to-the-past World Premiere musical, A Ring In Brooklyn (subtitled “a frickin’ musical”), and if their latest project gets off to an iffy start, about halfway through Act One it kicks into gear and turns out a winner.

 Whereas 40 Is The New 15 had its cast of five 40-year-olds flashing back to their 15-year-old selves and trying to figure out what happened to those teenage hopes and dreams, A Ring In Brooklyn’s ensemble of seven are about a decade younger and the past they’re recalling a not-so-distant one, their reminiscences prompted when invitations arrive to their 10-Year High School reunion, revealing some not-so-happy 20somethings.

 Gina (Gabrielle Wagner) is married to Gordy (Mike Irizarry), a couch potato who orders her about and would rather watch the latest game on TV than take his wife to see Beaches. (Did I mention that the year is 1989?)

Smitty (Mark Shunock) is recently divorced and still pining for a lost high school love.

Jenn (Jordan Kai Burnett) is a cute-but-mouthy Brooklyn girl—and still depressingly single.

Ronny (Johnny Cannizzaro) remains the quintessential geek, fascinated by magic and still wishing and hoping that Jenn will eventually give him the time of day.

 Tracy (Anna Hanson) was (and still is) the Class Of ’79 slut, and though she seems to celebrate this fact, our common sense tells us there may be deeper issues.

 And then there’s Tommy (Matt Valle), the classmate who gave Gina the titular ring at their high school Moon Dance ten years ago, a ring that somehow ended up thirty minutes later in Tracy’s purse.

Ten years have passed and since the blonde bimbo promised to wear it to their tenth high school reunion, and Gina is now bound and determined to get that ring back.

 Though A Ring In Brooklyn’s wispy plotline (book by Eric Dodson) would appear on the surface to be about a “frickin’” piece of jewelry, the ring turns out to be pretty much what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, i.e. a plot element to catch the audience’s attention and to appear to drive the plot.

A Ring In Brooklyn is really about Gina’s, Jenn’s, Ronny’s, and most especially Smitty’s unfulfilled or unfulfilling romantic dreams, and once we get past the musical’s less than thrilling first half hour and into the its nitty-gritty (and best musical numbers), you may find yourself as this reviewer did in the palm of its bejeweled hand.

 Aside from the show opener “Roosevelt Faces,” which the writers might consider replacing with a stronger, catchier one, A Ring In Brooklyn’s early songs are not without their charms. “Tommy Was” has everyone recalling the classmate who toted a water pistol filled with Paco Rabanne, watched A Star Is Born a dozen times, and joined the Navy right out of high school where rumor has it he choreographed a battleship-deck production of Cats. “Magic Wand” has teenage Smitty giving his stuttering buddy Ronny advice about using magician’s tricks to win Jenn’s love. (“Your hidden tool is your magic wand.”) “Tracy Brings” has the voluptuous blonde extolling the virtues of being bad. (“Oooh, I wanna oooh oooh oooh,” is its infectious refrain.) Still, these are the most deletable numbers in a musical which runs about twenty minutes too long.

A Ring In Brooklyn really catches fire the moment it becomes clear just who Smitty is pining for, a scene and a song that grabbed my heart and unleashed quite a few tears. More specifically, composer Alan Ross Fleishman and lyricist Dodson really hit their stride with “If I Were You,” a musical number so original and powerful that it elevates A Ring In Brooklyn to a whole new level.

Spoiler ahead. Those wishing to remain surprised should skip to End Of Spoiler.

It turns out that the Moonlight Dance marked Smitty and Tommy’s six-month anniversary, their clandestine relationship having started at a first tutoring session which ended up in Tommy’s bedroom. Now, half a year later, Tommy wants to shout out to the world how much he loves Smitty, or at the very least give him a ring to celebrate their love. Closeted jock Smitty, on the other hand, comes from an Italian Catholic family, is more than willing to kiss the cheerleaders (with tongue) but not the boy he’s been seeing on the sly, and declares rather unequivocally that he and Tommy are “not a ring thing.”

Immediately following Smitty’s rejection, Tommy serenades Gina (who has a major crush on him) about the magic she can expect on her first date—first ring, first kiss, first love—but he’s really singing about and to Smitty. Director-choreographer Joshua Finkel stages “If I Were You” as a slow dance for three, with Gina gazing lovingly into Tommy’s eyes as Tommy gazes past her into Smitty’s, their three hands joined as they slow dance and dream.

It is quite a number, and quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

End of spoiler.

Fleishmann’s music and Dodson’s lyrics get catchier and catchier from this point on, Finkel and company making the very most of each song’s potential, as in the Act Two opener “Disco Roosevelt,” which has the entire cast doing their very best Saturday Night Fever moves to Finkel’s inspired choreography.

 Even better are the pair of pop pas de deux that follow. “Please Let Me” is Jenn and Ronny’s big song-and-dance number, with the usually tongue-tied Ronny pretending to be fresh-from-Italy Reynaldo and Jenn falling under his Italiano spell even as he wishes it were the real Ronny she were falling for. A reprise retitled “Please Let-A Me” has “Reynaldo” matching song-and-dance wits with powerhouse Tracy as he tries to get back the ring he’d originally intended—and still wants—to give to Jenn, all the while attempting to resist Tracy’s vampish advances.

A Ring In Brooklyn’s 1979-89 timeframe doubtless reflects its writers’ own high school and post-high school years, and could reduce its appeal to contemporary audiences the ages of its protagonists. On the other hand, for those who remember Beaches when it first came out, the moment when one character spoils the chick flick’s ending for another is sure to get a laugh and bring back memories of the ‘80s, as do other time-specific references. Most importantly, at least one major plot twist, one I didn’t see coming at intermission but probably should have in retrospect, is very much a part of its time period.

Dodson and Fleishmann have written some terrific characters for their cast to bring to life, though several roles could stand a bit of tweaking. Gordy could easily lose some of his male chauvinist piggishness, Jenn at least half of her F-word-related verbs, nouns, and adjectives, and Tracy a bit of her in-your-face trampishness and A Ring In Brooklyn not suffer for their loss.

Still, the cast assembled on the NoHo Arts Center stage could hardly be better. The marvelous Wagner’s spunky Gina reveals her character’s beneath-the-surface pain and frustrations. A terrifically vampish Hanson has great fun sinking her teeth and claws into Tracy’s bad-girlishness. Irizarry does quite well in the somewhat thankless role of dissatisfied spouse, and sings one of the show’s best songs, “I Promise” quite gorgeously opposite Wagner. Native New Yorker Burnett looks sensational, sings sensationally, and has her Brooklyn girl act down pat. The charismatic Cannizzaro is a charmer as well, and never more so than when pretending not to speak English as Reynaldo. Valle is a triple-threat standout as the object of so many characters’ affection, and looks spiffy in a red-shirted version of John Travolta’s iconic Saturday Night Fever suit. Most memorable of all may well be Shunock, following his deeply moving performance in the similarly gay ‘80s-themed As Is with his stellar work here as Smitty, whose “Whatcha Wanna Know” showcases gorgeous tenor pipes we haven’t heard since Altar Boyz over two years ago.

Finkel deserves major snaps as choreographer for integrating so much dance into A Ring In Brooklyn’s eclectic blend of songs, whether in ensemble numbers or more intimate twosomes.

Musical director Ross Källing does bang-up work as well, orchestrating the show’s dozen or so songs and playing piano alongside the live three-piece band’s Bryan Blaske on keyboard and Michael Solomon on drums.

 Michael Hoffman’s colorful set design cleverly integrates the ring motif, transforming itself into the musical’s many locales including a ladies’ room which serves as the setting for the cat-fight that closes Act One with a musical bitch slap. Projected slides tell us immediately which decade we’re in, since characters don’t change clothes for the flashbacks, as well as showing us black and white snapshots from the past, some of which match the ‘80s characters better than others.

Coby Chasman-Beck expertly lights Hoffman’s set and Kimberly Overton’s period costumes, including Jenn’s drop dead gorgeous floral-printed frock. Alex Robert Holmes’ sound design allows us to hear the cast’s voices mostly quite clearly over the three-piece band.

Kevin Meoak is producer, Scott Guy executive producers, and Elise Dewsberry dramaturg. Vanessa Nelson is stage manager and Storie Blake assistant stage manager.

With a bit of retooling of its introductory songs and scenes, A Ring In Brooklyn stands a good chance of a life beyond its current engagement. One thing is certain. Its book and song writers could not have found a better team to bring their vision to life than the onstage and behind-the-scenes team behind this very promising world premiere.

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 10, 2012
Photos: Bill Johnson

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