The movie that turned Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan overnight into America’s romantic comedy sweethearts now makes a sparkling transition from film to stage as the Pasadena Playhouse presents the World Premiere of Sleepless In Seattle – The Musical.

Both movie and musical follow the parallel lives of recent widower Sam Baldwin (Tim Martin Gleason) and about-to-be engaged Annie Reed (Chandra Lee Schwartz), and keep the made-for-each-other couple almost entirely apart (he in Seattle and she in Baltimore) until an eleventh-hour rendezvous atop the Empire State Building inspired by the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr 1950s movie classic An Affair To Remember.

18_Scene from Sleepless in Seattle - The Musical. Photo by Jim Cox_5 Composer Ben Toth, lyricist Sam Forman, and book writer Jeff Arch open Sleepless In Seattle – The Musical with a bang, as hopeful singles across the U.S.A. express their dreams of finding someone “Out There,” snappy choreography courtesy of two-time Scenie winner Spencer Liff.

2_Chandra Lee Schwartz and Robert Mammana. Photo by Jim Cox Segueway to Annie, whose allergy-plagued boyfriend Walter (Robert Mammana), drops everything (i.e. a great big stack of colorfully wrapped holiday presents) for a Christmas Eve marriage proposal. So what if Annie and Walter are “Not Like The Movies” (another of Toth and Forman’s many tuneful songs), how often are real-life couples anywhere as perfect as their silver-screen counterparts?

Meanwhile, across the continent in Seattle, Sam and his ten-year-old son Jonah (Joe West) find themselves reassuring Joe’s sister Suzie (Lowe Taylor) and her husband Greg (Adam Silver) that “We’re Doing Fine,” even if there’s clearly something, or rather someone, missing in their lives.

20_Scene from Sleepless in Seattle - The Musical. Photo Jim Cox_2 Then comes Annie’s fateful drive back to Baltimore and Jonah’s simultaneous call to Dr. Marcia Fieldstone (Cynthia Ferrer in silhouette) and an entire country of radio talk-show-listeners including Annie learn of Sam’s stuck-in-mourning state, after which letters begin arriving by the bagful on the doorstep of Sleepless In Seattle, aka Sam. (Don’t forget that this is the pre-email early ‘90s.)

Annie’s longtime best friend Becky (Sabrina Sloan) encourages Annie to write to the lovelorn widower, and since Becky is every bit the Affair To Remember fan that Annie is, she gives her bestie the musical-duet advice, “Don’t Give Up On Cary.”

6_Joe West and Tim Martin Gleason. Photo by Jim Cox_2 Meanwhile back in Seattle, Sam tries his best to reassure Jonah that like the “Rock Stars” they are, father and son will together find a way to make things right in the end. Now, all Jonah has to do is put up with Dad dating coworker Victoria (Katharine Leonard), whose mirror-shattering laugh is but one of the reasons Jonah can’t stand her, the other being that…

Unbeknownst to Annie, Becky has pieced together the bits and pieces of her best friend’s unfinished, unmailed letters to Sam and sent a composite Seattle bound, and since Annie’s letter is the only one addressed to both father and son, there is only one woman on earth good enough for Jonah to accept as his new mommy, and her name’s not Victoria.

Sleepless In Seattle – The Musical’s crackerjack director Sheldon Epps and book writer Asch merit major kudos for finding ways to streamline the movie script Asch co-wrote with the film’s director Nora Ephron and David S. Ward, eliminating or combining characters and deleting sequences that, if included, would have either added an extra thirty-minutes to the musical’s running time or left no room for production numbers. Annie’s family are gone as is Sam’s overly picky client Claire, and as for Sam’s friend Jay and Jonah’s spacy babysitter Clarise and precocious school chum Jessica, they have become Sam’s close friend and confidant, the teddy-bearishly adorable Rob (Todd Buonopane).

10_Tim Martin Gleason and Chandra Lee Schwartz. Photo by Jim Cox The musical theater stage works to Sleepless In Seattle’s advantage in numerous ways, one of which is that it allows Sam and Annie to occupy the same stage even as thousand of miles separate them, and in one inspired sequence, duet “It Might Be Magic” only inches apart even though we know those inches are more like a continent.

Toth and Foreman’s songs are melodious enough to inspire a desire for a second listen (and an Original Cast Recording please), and thankfully several get a reprise or two. The songwriters deserve credit too for finding ways to transform movie dialog sequences into songs, most notably “Perfect For A While,” which punctuates Annie’s drive home, during which it becomes abundantly clear that Sam on the radio and Annie in her car three thousand miles away are somehow, miraculously destined for each other. In fact, about the only thing some might find wrong with Toth and Foreman’s songs is that they aren’t the ones featured in the movie, but hey, this is an original musical with original tunes.

Book and song writers do err in not making clear enough the An Affair To Remember-Empire State Building connection, speaking of which, why hasn’t Rita Wilson’s unforgettable synopsis of said film been transformed into a showstopping song for Taylor? Perhaps, too, a few more of the movie’s signature laugh lines could have been included in Arch’s book. What happened, for example, to “H and G” or Dr. Marcia’s rib-ticklingly pretentious response to Sam’s query, “Is it Marcia or Dr. Fieldstone?” or the eminently quotable “It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of 40”?

17_Scene from Sleepless in Seattle - The Musical. Photo by Jim Cox_4 Sleepless In Seattle – The Musical’s Liff-choreographed production numbers are all-around winners, from the show-opening “Out There” to its post-radio broadcast reprise, which has women from the Northeast to Hawaii and one very hopeful gay guy longing to be Sam’s second-time-around love, to the singles’ bar sizzle of “We Can Make It,” to “Welcome To New York” another full-cast winner in which Jonah discovers just how different flashy NYC is from rainy Seattle.

Casting choices (candidates courtesy of Michael Donovan, CSA, at the top of his game) make it clear that Epps and his creative partners recognize that the key to the success of any romcom is finding stars whom the audience will immediately recognize as MFEO (Made For Each Other).

And thank the gods of musical theater heaven for the Pasadena Playhouse’s Sam and Annie, a pair of recent Broadway-to-L.A. transplants who have us from “Hello.”

The role of Sam is a far cry from Raoul in The Phantom Of The Opera, the part he played on Broadway a record-breaking 2600 times, but Gleason is just Tom Hanksian enough to fill his predecessor’s shoes quite winningly yet make the part very much his own, an all-American good guy with pipes to match.

4_Chandra Lee Schwartz. Photo by Jim Cox_3 Equally picture perfect is the utterly enchanting Schwartz, who while no carbon copy of the film original, has that girl-next-door cuteness that transformed Meg Ryan into America’s sweetheart, a quirky charm that wins your heart from the get-go, and vocals so wickedly wonderful, it comes as no surprise that she’s been a Broadway Galinda.

As Jonah, West could not only pass for Gleason’s son, he sings in a boy soprano belt that makes every one of his songs a showstopper. (The role of Jonah will be played at some performances by Carter Thomas, already a veteran of six StageSceneLA reviews.)

11_Tim Martin Gleason and Katharine Leonard. Photo by Jim Cox_2 8_Sabrina Sloan and Chandra Lee Schwartz. Photo by Jim Cox_2
And then there’s the uniformly splendid supporting cast—Sloan, giving Becky a soulful sexy sizzle; Mammana, managing to be so handsome and geeky that we understand not only why Annie says “Yes” but also why she has to end up saying “No”; Leonard, sexy and sensational as Victoria, whose ear-piercing laugh she reinvents to side-splitting perfection; and Buonopane, the all-around good guy any Sam would want as his best friend and any Jonah as his honorary uncle. Best Actress Scenie winner Ferrer’s drole Dr. Marcia stands out even as a shadow behind a screen, while Silver and Taylor (both multiple Scenie winners) provide bang-up support as Greg and Suzy.

Completing the ensemble are some of Southern California’s most versatile triple-threats—Sachin Bhatt, Terron Brooks, Jay Donnell, Charissa Hogeland, Teya Patt, and Yuka Takara—who along with Ferrer, Leonard, Silver, and Taylor sing, dance, and act about a half-dozen roles each. Not only that, but Epps and Donovan have come up with the most eclectic ensemble I can recall seeing in a contemporary musical, multi-racial, multi-age, multi-weight, multi-cultural, and as thoroughly all-American as the folks of every variety who call our country home.

13_Tim Martin Gleason, Joe West and Chandra Lee Schwartz. Photo by Jim Cox_2 Musical director extraordinaire David O conducts and plays keyboard in Sleepless In Seattle’s Broadway-ready pit orchestra. Scenic designer John Iacovelli and projection/lighting designer Brian L. Gale join forces to transport us all around Seattle and Baltimore with an Empire State Building finale that is pure set, projection, and lighting design magic. Kate Bergh’s multitude of colorful costumes transport us back a nostalgic twenty years in time as do Judi Lewin’s terrific wigs, hair, and makeup designs. Carl Casella’s sound design is crisp and clear.

Additional creative kudos go to Michael Starobin (orchestrations) and Larry Blank (musical supervision). Joe Witt is production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, Kristen Hammack company manager, Lurie Horns Pfeffer production stage manager, and Nate Genung assistant stage manager.

It’s a long hard road from a regional “pre-Broadway” run to stages of The Great White Way. For every Sister Act, there’s a Mask or Dangerous Beauty or (heaven forbid) South Street that end up stuck in pre-Broadway limbo. Still, despite the odds, my guess is that with a bit of tweaking here and there, Sleepless In Seattle – The Musical stands a good chance of making that much sought-after West-to-East Coast transition. Tuneful, funny, and guaranteed to inspire more than a few tears of joy, Sleepless In Seattle – The Musical proves a bona fide crowd-pleaser. I for one can’t wait to see again.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
June 2, 2013
Photos: Jim Cox

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