1960s blue-eyed soul lives again in That Lovin’ Feelin’, a Twin Cities dinner theater hit now being given a West Coast Premiere that transcends James A. Zimmerman’s rather by-the-number script thanks largely to the thrilling musical performances of Morgan Lauff as Bill Medley and Brenden MacDonald as Bobby Hatfield, aka The Righteous Brothers.
Zimmerman constructs That Lovin’ Feelin’ as a series of flashbacks with a 60something Bill (Paul Cady) submitting to the latest in a lifetime of interviews, this one by a college journalism major (a vivacious Sarah Karpeles as “Al”) who insists upon no mere retread of the facts but “the real story,” particularly regarding the reasons for the pop star duo’s multiple breakups.
We witness Bill and Bobby’s first meeting as a pair of aspiring Orange County vocalists who discover to their joy that Bill’s rich, resonant bass-baritone and Bobby’s angelic high tenor are the proverbial match made in heaven. We learn how The Righteous Brothers got their name (African-American audience members used to shout out “That was righteous, brothers”). We are there when songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil present them with the song that would go on to become the most air-played single in pop music history. And we observe their collaboration with legendary “Wall Of Sound” producer Phil Spector as he guides them from hit to hit to hit.
Along the way, Lauff’s Bill and MacDonald’s Bobby treat us to one spectacular vocal performance after another—“Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “I’m So Lonely,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Justine,” and of course, the song that made them overnight stars. (And that’s just in Act One.)
Meanwhile back in 2003, Al keeps prodding the older Bill for the real nitty-gritty. What was it about Bill and Bobby’s personal relationship that kept them at odds throughout the years, and what was it that kept pulling them back together as professional partners?
If That Lovin’ Feelin’s first act tends towards a mere recitation of facts, and occasionally too many to keep straight, it’s in Act Two that Zimmerman’s narrative really takes off as we witness the friction that develops between an intensely focused Bill and a Bobby who hides his insecurities behind foul-mouthed prattle and awkward jokes.
Ultimately, what makes That Lovin’ Feelin’ the exciting theatrical experience it proves to be are its nearly two-dozen musical numbers, presented full-length by a vocally-blessed pair of stars, their terrific trio of girl-group backup singers, and a fabulous live band.
The charismatic Lauff and MacDonald are hardly dead-ringers for Bill and Bobby (give MacDonald dark hair and he could pass for Bill), but the second they open their mouths to sing, it is “Rock And Roll Heaven,” and musical director Cady excels too with “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life” and “What’d I Say.”
Under Jules Aaron’s always reliable direction, a fine supporting cast (Robert Axelrod, Patrick Burke, Nicole Renée Chapman, Timm Damiano, Amanda Dawn Harrison, J. Christopher Sloan, and Brooke Van Ginsven) portray the men and women of Bill and Bobby’s professional and personal lives, though with so many of them it can at times be hard to distinguish one from another.
Chapman, Harrison, and Van Grinsven shine especially bright when providing power backup to Lauff and MacDonald’s gorgeous lead vocals and even brighter when executing choreographer Michele Bernath’s groovy ‘60s dance moves as the Shindig Dancers.
Music advisor Richard Levinson heads That Lovin’ Feelin’s rocktastic live band, completed by Lance Crow, Bill Scott, and Axelrod, sound designer Steve Shaw earning highest marks for his expert mix of amped vocals and instrumentals, thanks also to Diablo Sound.
Chris Winfield’s nifty multipurpose set does the trick as does J. Kent Inasy’s expert lighting design, but it’s Angela M. Eads’s sensational period costumes and hair/makeup artist Judi Lewin’s equally fab wigs that earn highest design honors.
That Lovin’ Feelin’ is produced for The Group Rep by Larry Eisenberg and Doug Haverty. Bernath is assistant director. Damiano is assistant stage manager. F. Murray Abraham and Kate Abraham have sponsored That Lovin’ Feelin’s live music.
A memory-lane treat for audience members who’ve reached Bill Medley’s years (75, if you can believe it), That Lovin’ Feelin’ should prove equally appealing to audience members the age of its 20something stars. Though additional script work is needed to take That Lovin’ Feelin’ to the next level, even as is, the latest from The Group Rep makes for terrific holiday season entertainment.
The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.
December 26, 2015
Photos: Doug Engalla