Take forty classic George Gershwin tunes, round up five stellar triple-threats to perform them, tie the three dozen-plus songs together into five mini-musicals with the wispiest of plots, add some snappy choreography from an up-and-coming Broadway whiz kid, back the whole thing up with a terrific seven-piece orchestra, and you’ve got ‘S Wonderful: The New Gershwin Musical, the latest charmer from Music Theatre West.
True, this 2010 “revuesical” now getting its West Coast Premiere is one better suited to the intimacy of say Long Beach’s ICT or Burbank’s Colony, but at the very least those seated in the front half of the cavernous Carpenter Center are guaranteed an entertaining two hours of song, dance, and boy-meets-girl love. (Those in search of “Romance Equality” will have to look elsewhere.)
Creative force Ray Roderick (who conceived and wrote ‘S Wonderful and directs it for MTW) transports its quintet of stars around the world and back-and-forth in time for the first four of ‘S Wonderful’s five musicalettes: to 1928 New York City for Nice Work, to 1957 New Orleans for Of Thee I Sing, to 1939 Paris for An American In Paris, and to 1948 Hollywood for Funny Face, before bringing us up to the present for Someone To Watch Over Me, treating us along the way to such Gershwin standards as “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “Summertime,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Swanee,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Embraceable You,” “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” and the title tune. In fact, chances are if you’ve got a favorite song with music by George Gershwin, it’s featured in ‘S Wonderful, in addition to quite a few you may never have heard before.
Storylines are slender to say the least. Would-be crime reporter goes after thief and finds true love. Torch singer’s boyfriend runs off with her best friend, prompting a series of “Wish You Were Here” postcards with songs to match. American sailor in Paris meets French waitress and does some Parisian sightseeing with her before heading off to WWII. Hollywood makeup artist gets mistaken for studio contract player and films screen test (and screen kiss) with handsome film heartthrob. Adult grandson discovers an early 20th Century “Top 40” when Grandma presents him with a Gershwin-filled iPod.
And that’s about it—and might not add up to an MTW-caliber musical were the hits not Gershwin, the performers not Rebecca Johnson, Damon Kirsche, Ashley Fox Linton, Jeff Skowron, and Rebecca Spencer, and the choreography not by “Mr. Broadway 2010” title-holder Charlie Williams, all of the above backed to perfection by musical director-conductor-pianist Bret Simmons and his seven-piece onstage orchestra. (Musical arrangements are by Rick Hip-Flores.)
Director Roderick clearly knows his ‘S Wonderful backwards and forwards, having helmed both its 2010 Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera World Premiere and its 2011 New York debut at Beltport’s Gateway Playhouse, the latter of which starred Deidre Haren, Dorothy of MTW’s 2008 The Wizard Of Oz.
‘S Wonderful 2014 benefits enormously from its cast of some of L.A.’s most gifted triple threats, beginning with leading man extraordinaire Kirsche, once again showing off velvet pipes and agile footwork … and looking more debonair than ever. The production reunites the enchanting Linton and the oh-so versatile Skowron in their fourth MTW outing (following Sunset Boulevard, Little Me, and Carnival), allowing the duo to show off triple-threat talents few can match. Young Frankenstein’s Johnson again proves herself a red-headed vocal dazzler and comedienne par excellence. Last but not least, Spencer (recently The Music Man’s scene-stealing Eulalie Mackecknie Shin) reveals equal gifts—and the sultriest pipes in town in “Summertime.”
Musical Theatre West’s most inspired stroke may have been to bring back Broadway choreographic up-and-comer Williams, whose 2007 MTW debut I described as that of “a 19-year-old soon-to-be star.” Prophetic words for a young man soon to have a pair of Broadway hits (Memphis and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying) under his belt, and whose MTW choreographic debut has him bringing out the best from each talented ‘S Wonderful performer in moves ranging from ballroom to jazz ballet. Williams has even choreographed dancey scene changes facilitated by terrifically talented newcomers Annie Hinskton and Tyler Logan, who deserve a program insert or pre-show announcement starting today.
Kevin Clowes has designed a snazzy bandstand set that serves as a backdrop for all five mini-musicals, with projections further aiding in setting each scene. Jeff Warner’s lighting is first-rate as is Brian S. Hsieh’s sound design and mixing. Deborah Roberts deserves highest marks, too, for designing one period-perfect costume after another.
Kelly Marie Pate is stage manager. Mary Ritenhour is production manager and assistant stage manager. Clowes is technical director. Paul Garman is Musical Theatre West Executive Director/Producer.
It’s been some time since MTW has presented as modest a production as ‘S Wonderful, but for those seated up close (if perhaps not so much for those in the back rows), this “New Gershwin Musical” makes for an enjoyable, marvelously performed couple of hours of nostalgia for Gershwin lovers of any age.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
April 5, 2014
Photos: Caught in the Moment Photography