Legs Diamond died twice, the first time in a mob shootout on December 18, 1931, and then a second time on February 19, 1989, when the musical bearing the Prohibition-era gangster’s name died an ignominious death inside the soon-to-be-defunct-itself Mark Hellinger Theatre, the victim of too much hurried rewriting and a leading man who wasn’t quite the triple-threat the role of Legs required.

End of story, right?

Wrong, though it would have been without Michael Betts, co-producer of Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series, who fell in love with the musical’s Original Broadway Cast recording and refused to let go of a dream to bring Legs back to life, even if for One Night Only, a dream which came miraculously true on Sunday, December 2, 2012.

But first a bit of back story.

When Legs The Musical died, it really died (unlike its lead character, whose demise keeps getting reported again and again throughout the second act only to have Legs pop up alive and healthy each time). Rights to restage the musical were never once granted, and though the final book* survived in the archives of its composer’s estate, the show’s orchestrations disappeared without a trace, virtually guaranteeing that Legs Diamond The Musical would never again be seen by anyone anywhere anytime ever again.

Or at least that would have been the case had Betts not persevered, convincing the estate of Legs Diamond composer/star Peter Allen that Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series would give Legs Diamond the kind of production that might have made the Broadway original a hit—if only for one night.

A listen to the Original Cast Recording makes it amply clear that while the musical’s book might still need major overhauling (if not a complete from-scratch rewrite), Peter Allen’s songs deserved a second chance, and if MTW could get triple-threat extraordinaire David Engel to play the title role, Legs Diamond would at last have a lead who could sing, dance, and act the part in a way that (terrific showman that he was), Allen had not been able to according to the New York critics.

Still, there was the matter of those missing orchestrations, and if Betts had his way, there was no way Legs was going to end up singing and dancing to a solo piano. No, indeed, this was a show that needed a full orchestra, and that meant orchestrations.

Enter 20something musical virtuoso (and Reiner Reading Series co-producer) David Lamoureux and fellow musical whizzes David Catalan, Jack Madjecki, Brian Morales, and Daniel Thomas, who through some feats of genius this reviewer can’t even imagine, managed to reconstruct the orchestrations for Legs Diamond’s two dozen songs—all from listening to the Original Cast Recording.

That Herculean task completed, all that remained was to assemble a cast and creative team and give them a grand total of twenty-five hours of rehearsal (per Actors Equity rules) to assemble a nearly fully-staged production, sorry, make that reading.

Now, there are readings and there are readings, and as can be vouched by anyone present at Legs Diamond’s one-night-only return to the stage, Legs Diamond The Reading set the concert staged reading bar higher than this reviewer has ever seen before.

Some readings have minimum blocking, even going so far as to have performers simply stand in front of mikes, book in hand, and read and sing the show.

Books were indeed in hand at Cal State Long Beach’s University Theatre (or at least they were during dialog sequences, per Actors Equity rules), but with Larry Raben directing with accustomed flair and Lee Martino in charge of the show’s dazzling choreography, what Legs Diamond’s oh-so fortunate audience got to see was the closest thing to a full-fledged production that any so-called “reading” could possibly be.

Performances were so finely tuned that it seemed incredible that they had been rehearsed in twenty-five hours, and as for the evening’s dance numbers, I lost count at half-a-dozen, each and every one of them performed to perfection by the fastest studies any choreographer could ever hope for.

Legs Diamond’s book remains problematic. It has something to do with Legs (Engel) wanting to become a nightclub star with the help of the glamorous Flo (Tracy Lore), whom Legs believes to be the owner of the Hotsy Totsy Club and Grill. Turns out the nightclub actually belongs to Legs’ underworld nemesis Arnold Rothstein (Paul Ainsley), whose latest “doll” Kiki Roberts (Melissa Fahn) Legs promptly begins an affair with. Not surprisingly, Arnold (aka A.R.) decides to get rid of Legs. And get rid of him. And get rid of him again.

If anything more consequential happened during the musical’s two acts, I missed it, but no matter. With Engel and company delivering the goods quite sensationally, Legs Diamond The Reading provided nonstop Grade-A entertainment.

Engel’s stellar performance in the title role proved that there’s nothing this L.A. musical theater superstar can’t do (and in record rehearsal time), charming the pants off the entire audience with his infectiously joyous Legs.

Lore dazzled as Flo—though considerable suspension of belief was required to accept the glamorous leading lady as anything close to the “older woman” she proclaims herself to be vis-à-vis Legs. (Broadway’s original Flo—the now 88-year-old Julie Wilson—was twenty years Allen’s senior.)

As for Betty Boop-voiced Kiki, no one plays dumb blonde more sensationally than Fahn—no one—as her scene-stealing star turn once again proved.

Ainsley made for a classic mafia tough-guy as A.R., Gwen Stewart sang up a storm as chanteuse Madge, and Christopher Carothers, Dennis Kyle, Sean Clifford, and Mark C. Reis made for some very entertaining gangsters. Jackie Cox, Natasha Harris, Michaelia Leigh, and Lindsay Martin looked gorgeous and sang even more gorgeously.

And then there were Martino’s dance team (Juliet Fischer, Casey Garritano, Rachel Scott, Hannah Simmons, Daniel Smith, Clay Stefanki, Veronica Stevens, and Matthew J. Vargo), who learned and performed more dance steps than most humans could learn in twenty-five years, let alone twenty-five hours.

Musical highlights included Engel’s “When I Get My Name In Lights” and “All I Wanted Was The Dream,” Stewart’s “Speakeasy,” Fahn’s “I Was Made For Champagne,” Lore’s “The Music Went Out Of My Life,” Engel and Lore’s “Only An Older Woman,” Lore, Stewart, and Fahn’s “The Man Nobody Could Love,” and a sensational ballet “Gangland Chase” that showed off choreographer Martino and her dancers at their tiptop best.

Musical director Corey Hirsch and his nine-piece orchestra sounded absolutely sensational, aided and abetted by sound engineer extraordinaire Julie Ferrin. Projections by Reesa Jones, Raben, and Thomas set the scene throughout the evening along with providing some very amusing newspaper headlines. Anthony Gagliardi’s wigs looked fabulous.

Kudo too to stage manager Guillermo Page, crew Jason Jensen and Ben Karasik, dance assistants Vargo and Smith, costume coordinator Martino, executive director/producer Paul Garman, production manager Mary Ritenhour, box office manager Betts, administrator Gloria Nelson, director of publicity/community relations Gigi Fusco Meese, and patron services representative Lacie Turcott.

The Legs Diamond reading would have happened without series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, National Endowment For the Arts, and additional underwriting provided by Kathy Baker Campbell.

Yes, miracles and magic can happen, even if for One Night Only, and with orchestrations now available for a future, fully-staged production, perhaps the Peter Allen estate might consider a revised revival. Allen’s songs deserve it, and as MTW’s concert staged reading made amply clear, there’s still a lot of life left in Legs.

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 20, 2012

*by Harvey Fierstein and Charles Suppon based on the Warner Brothers film “The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond” (screenplay by Joseph Landon)

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