A pair of stellar lead performances, a topnotch supporting cast, and direction by the musical’s original leading lady bring out the best in the never-made-it-to-Broadway Busker Alley, Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series 2013-14 season closer. Still, despite some terrific Sherman Brothers songs, it’s hard to become invested in the story of as sad sack a lead character as street entertainer Charlie Baxter, even as played with abundant pizzazz by triple-threat extraordinaire James Leo Ryan.

Cast and crew surround Richard M. Sherman

AJ Carothers’ book meanders more than a bit before setting Charlie’s plot in motion, introducing us first to veteran buskers Arthur (Michael G. Hawkins) and Gladys (Cynthia Ferrer), whose specialty numbers allow Hawkins and Ferrer their customary chance to dazzle, but serve mostly to postpone Charlie’s rather dismal tale.

It eventually becomes clear that Busker Alley will center on Charlie’s star-crossed love for Libby St. Alban (Sarah Elizabeth Combs), a street waif/sneak thief with dreams of headlining in London’s West End.

When songwriter Prentiss James (Zachary Ford) introduces Libby to big-shot producer Max Beardsley (Tom Shelton), Libby’s star begins to rise, even as poor, pitiful, penniless Charlie abandons street performance for the dreary life of a lowly bus conductor.

Despite leading man Ryan’s best efforts, Charlie’s pathetic plight failed to elicit more than this reviewer’s commiseration, and I couldn’t help wondering who had thought the 1938 film British St. Martin’s Lane could be turned into a hit Broadway musical in the first place, even with Tommy Tune as its star.

Fortunately, Tune’s leading lady Darcie Roberts Magino has directed and choreographed the one-night-only concert staged reading with the assurance and flair of one who knows her material well (assisted by Janet Renslow), and her supporting cast (Marc Ginsburg, Gabriel Kalomas, Christopher Kauffman, Jordan Lamoureux, Kirklyn Robinson, Natalie Storrs, and Allyson Turner) show off Grade A song-and-dance gifts, particularly considering that Actors Equity rules have limited them to 25-hours of rehearsal.

As Libby, Combs has never been more sensational, showing off a Broadway belt that inspires extra oohs and aahs from those who know only her glorious soprano.

Ford and Shelton are terrific as always, Ashley Fox Linton shows off delightful comedic chops as self-centered starlet Elaine Claire, and Christopher Carothers’ vocals couldn’t be silkier.

Last but not least, Long Beach musical theater legend Laura Killingsworth bookends Busker Alley as the woman recounting Charlie’s tale, London musical theater legend Dame Libby.

Aside from performances miraculously polished in only a handful of short rehearsals, the other reason to celebrate Musical Theatre West/Reiner Reading Series’ one-night-only, book-in-hand revival of Busker Alley is the chance it offers to hear Mary Poppins’ songwriters Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s little-known score, one which includes the infectious title song and “Paddle Your Own Canoe” alongside gorgeous ballads like “He Has A Way” and “When Do I Get Mine,” both of them Combs showcases.

The Sherman Brothers’ tunes benefit from musical director David Catalan’s brand-new orchestrations (made possible by a gift from Kathy Baker Campbell) and the tiptop seven-piece orchestra Catalan conducts, musicians provided by Los Angeles Musicians Collective.

Jon Campbell is sound engineer and Benjamin Karasik technical director.

The Reiner Reading Series is produced by Michael Betts and David Lamoureux, underwritten by Ken & Dottie Reiner with additional funding provided by The Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation and Campbell.

Busker Alley brings to a close a particularly eclectic 4th annual Reiner Reading Series, and though less successful than Little Me, Call Me Madam, Carnival, and The Goodbye Girl, Broadway buffs can rejoice at having had the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Busker Alley live onstage.

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 17, 2014

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