A young English girl and the Loch Ness Monster become the most improbable of life-changing friends in Chance Theater’s World Premiere production of Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo’s irresistibly entertaining, utterly magical new musical Loch Ness, a new musical. (The lower-case addendum is part of its title, not a case of reviewer redundancy.)
If the great-big, cheer-inspiring, full-cast production number that opens Loch Ness doesn’t immediately have you in its spell, then the relationship between spunky English teen Haley Westerbrook (Julia Cassandra Smith) and the endearing—and possibly centuries-old—Nessie (Katie Brown aided and abetted by puppet designers Megan Hill and Fred Kinney) and Pailet’s glorious, instantly infectious melodies most certainly will.
Add to that a cast of characters whose various eccentricities make them some of the most delightful I’ve seen in a good long while, a production design that is one of the Chance’s best ever, and an interspecies friendship that will touch your heart like few have before, and you’ve got a musical destined to go a long, long way beyond its initial Orange County run.
Commissioned by Leana Callaghan (Angeline Mirenda), a glamorous, imperious Scot who could give Alexis Carrington lessons in not taking no for an answer … and shoulder pads, Dr. Thomas Westerbrook (Jackson Tobiska) and his daughter have traveled from Cambridge to the Scottish Highlands in search of the legendary lake monster.
If Haley’s father has agreed to accept Leana’s commission, it’s more about replenishing a bank account gone empty than out of scientific interest, Thomas having spent his last penny hoping to discover the whereabouts of a wife whose plane had gone down somewhere over the deep blue sea. For Thomas, the time has come to give up the search. For Haley, on the other hand, it is much too soon to abandon hope.
Accompanying Thomas and Haley on their expedition—and providing delectable comic support along the way—are CJ (Alex Bueno), grown peeved at folks who don’t get it that the C in CJ stands for Captain, and that by calling her Captain CJ they’re being redundant; French crew members Pierre and Éclair (Keaton Williams and Gena Velez), who could give Maurice Chevalier lessons in “‘ow to speak wiz ze French accent”; The Oiler (Corky Loupe), at sea so long that only he can make heads or fish tails of whatever the dickens he’s saying; and daffy policeman Angus (Matt Takahashi), who inspires nearly as many laughs as his civilian compatriots, with the show’s Baladeer (Laura M. Hathaway) sending her glorious soprano soaring high above Loch Ness. Oh, and did I mention that Haley has her very own amphibian sidekick who keeps popping up out of the loch with a “ribbit” here and a “ribbit” there.
It’s an accidental fall into the Loch that first brings Haley face to face with “Nessie,” who not only turns out to be the farthest thing from a Monster (a term she finds more than a bit pejorative) but like her new human friend longs to be reunited with a mother who might still be out there somewhere beyond her Loch Ness home.
Shared hopes and needs thus bring about the most unlikely of friends, Haley and Nessie’s bond giving Loch Ness its heart and soul even as supporting characters keep things as wild and whimsical as can be.
I called composer/co-book writer Pailet’s previous Chance hit, the Best Musical Ovation Award-winning Triassic Park, “the wildest, wackiest, filthiest, campiest, and most entertaining show ever written from a dino’s point of view,” its songs ranging from hard rock to hip-hop to power ballads, the lyrics of each and every one coming with its own “Warning: Explicit Language” label.
Though Loch Ness merits an equal number of superlatives, its family-friendly songs are about as far from hard rock or rap as Alan Menken is from Metallica or Snoop Dog, great big Broadway show tunes with melodies Menken, Elton John, or Stephen Schwartz would be proud to call their own and snappy lyrics by Penedo, who co-wrote Loch Ness’s charming book.
Unfortunately, the lack of a program page or insert with a list of song titles and singers leaves audience members, like this reviewer, trying to recall just who sang what when, though what appears to be the show’s title tune, sung by CJ, Pierre, and Éclair, deserves special mention for its tight Andrews Sisters harmonies set to a jazz-meets-hip-hop beat.
Pailet’s direction is as inspired as it gets, credit for imagination shared with scenic designers Hill and Kinney, who have managed to create both ship and loch, a movable stage-wide “bridge” allowing for action to take place on deck at one moment (with the deep dry-ice “waters” of the loch lurking far below), then have almost the entire playing area open up for ten-foot-long Nessie to swim about with Haley atop her and various cast members maneuvering her humungous body parts.
Equally inspired are music supervisor Ryan O’Connell’s lush orchestrations, specially pre-recorded instrumental tracks that give Pailet’s melodies the rich full-orchestral sound they deserve, with sound designer Ryan Brodkin insuring a perfect mix of amplified vocals and instrumentals.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect cast than the one assembled at the Chance, a pair of simply fabulous Chance Theater company members joined by eight equally fab guest artists returning to the Chance for the second, third, or umpteenth time.
The terrific Smith is plucky perfection as Haley, a versatility-proving follow-up to her winning performance as Nina in In The Heights, and she is matched every step of the way by the utterly adorable, endlessly endearing Brown (The Secret Garden’s marvelous Ayah) as Nessie.
Chance treasure Bueno is macho gal-tastic as CJ, and hilarious to boot. And speaking of hilarious, Takahashi may be even funnier here than he was in his scene-stealing cameo in the Chance’s recent She Loves Me. And speaking of even more hilarious, Loupe’s loopy Oiler (a role written for him during the rehearsal process) gets laughs every time he opens his mouth with words only the Oiler himself can comprehend.
The chameleon-like Tobiska does revelatory work as Thomas, not only in revealing a father’s love and a widower’s torment but vocally as well; the divalicious Mirenda gives every soap villainess a run for her money—with a purrrfect Scottish burr thrown in for good measure; and the exquisite Hathaway proves once again that she is Chance Theater’s brunette soprano supreme.
As for those Frenchies, not only do the roles of Pierre and Éclair give the oh-so talented Williams and Velez the chance to show off some expert comedic chops, they welcome back for the winter from their new East Coast digs two of Cal State Fullerton’s finest recent musical theater grads, the Chance’s doomed Tony & Maria in Silly & Sillier mode.
Though not a dancy show per se, Loch Ness adroitly integrates Kelly Todd’s engaging choreographic moves at various moments throughout, with musical director Mark Sonnenblick eliciting expert vocals from the entire cast.
In addition to the design gifts of Brodkin, Hill and Kinney, Loch Ness benefits enormously from the contributions of puppet mechanics designer-fabricator Baxley Andresen, lighting designer Jonathan Daroca, costume designer Rachael Lorenzetti (tartan plaids galore), and props designer Amy Ramirez.
Nora Ives is associate director. Nicole Schlitt is stage manager. Mary Kay Fyda-Mar is executive producer and Lee Seymour is associate producer.
Though its title gives away little of what makes Loch Ness, a new musical so magical, word of mouth most certainly will, and if audiences respond with as much love as Friday night’s (and this reviewer) did, not only will the Chance have a smash 2105 season opener, Triassic Parq’s Pailet may find reptilian lightning striking twice in the very same place—and beyond.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
February 6, 2015
Photos: Doug Catiller/True Image Studio