A pair of stellar lead performances, a sensational young ensemble executing director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s thrilling dance moves, and the fascination already built into the story behind the construction of NYC’s most iconic landmark are the best reasons to catch Empire The Musical at La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts, though its producers’ exhortation to “See it before it goes to Broadway” is, at least as things stand now, wishful thinking.
Empire does get off to an absolutely thrilling start in “Heyday,” the fifteen-minute show-opening song-and-dance number that situates us smack dab in still-roaring 1929 and introduces us to our fictionalized hero and heroine, architect Michael Shaw (Kevin Earley) and Governor Al Smith’s “girl Friday” Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson), whose prickly banter makes it immediately clear to us, if not to them, that they are a match made in screwball comedy heaven.
“Moxie” adds to the mix the real-life duo of Smith (Michael McCormick) and financier John J. Raskob (Tony Sheldon), who dare to dream big (or should that be high?) and fast, determining to complete construction in just over a year as a way to combat those Great Depression blues.
Despite women’s protests to “Stop The Madness” of sending construction workers sky-high, fears not unfounded given an eventual death toll of five, Empire The Musical takes us all the way up to the top floors as Italians and Irish and Poles and Greeks and Mohawk Indians sing and dance to “Don’t Look Down When You’re Going Up,” then sit down to lunch in a freeze-frame replicating the now iconic snapshot of that vertiginous moment in time.
Among the workers, only Ethan O’Dowd (Caleb Shaw) and his pregnant wife Emily (Katharine McDonough)—and to a lesser extent plucky Bucky Brandt (Tommy Bracco)—are given any sort of storyline, though one suspiciously svelte laborer does look the spitting image of Raskob’s heiress daughter Betty (Charlotte Maltby).
If Empire’s first act portends potential hit status despite a minimum of memorable tunes, Act Two pretty much falls apart as it stands, losing sight of its pair of sparring-as-foreplay leads, so much so that when Michael finally declares his love for Frankie, it seems almost entirely out of the blue. (There’s also an insurance broohaha that seems contrived at best.)
The Betty-as-a-boy subplot not only requires a Shakespearean suspension of disbelief (at least as cast), it adds nothing to the musical, whereas beefing up Michael and Frankie’s Act Two roles would do just the opposite. It would help too if we knew a bit more about the individual workers, and in particular the apparently vertigo-immune Mohawks.
Fortunately, in the always splendid Earley (L.A.’s go-to musical theater leading man a decade ago before Broadway beckoned) and the one-of-a-klnd sensational Gibson (recently on Broadway in Cinderella), Empire has a pair of charismatic leads who do everything triple-threat stars should do … and then some.
Supporting players are all quite marvelous too, with special snaps to L.A. favorites Shaw and McDonough (both lovely to look at and gorgeously piped), Musical Theatre Guild treasure Joe Hart as crusty foreman Abe Klayman and a deliciously posh Stork Club Maitre D’, and irresistible original Broadway cast Newsie Bracco.
If anything, Empire The Musical demonstrates the directorial-choreographic gifts of Broadway’s Dodge, who does her darnedest to turn Empire into a silk purse, aided and abetted by a supporting cast of mostly L.A.-based triple-threats each more stunningly talented than the next, an ensemble made up of associate choreographer/dance captain Michael Baxter (Molodsky), Richard Bulda (Pomahac-Mohawk), Juan Caballer (Nikos), Caitlyn Calfas (Hattie), Fatima El-Bashir (Florence), Tory Freeth (Hazel), Rachel King (Agnes), Gabriel Navarro (Rudy-Mohawk), Rachel Osting (Vera), Cooper Stanton (Menzo), Michael Starr (Duryeavich), Christine Tucker (Lois), Rodrigo Varandas (Jesse-Mohawk), Josh Walden (Pakulski), and Justin Michael Wilcox (De Caprio).
Absolutely Broadway caliber are Empire’s pit orchestra under the baton of musical director Sariva Goetz and its Grade-A production design, set and animated projections (by scenic/co-projection designer David Gallo and co-projection designer Brad Peterson) blending to perfection as they take us way up to the top of the Empire State Building. Jared A. Sayeg’s expert lighting design manages the near impossible feat of lighting actors without diminishing projections. Leon Wiebers’ period costumes and Rick Geyer’s hair, wig, and makeup design combine gorgeously, Philip G. Allen’s sound design provides a pitch-perfect mix of vocals and instrumentals, Terry Hanrahan’s props are her accustomed topnotch work.
Casting is by Julia Flores. Buck Mason is general manager, Lily Twining is production manager, Jill Gold is production stage manager, and Nicole Wessel is assistant stage manager. Additional creative credits are shared by Robert Hull (vocal and dance arrangements), Michael Starobin (orchestrations), Paul Rubin (flying sequence choreography), and Michael Baxter (additional choreography).
Empire The Musical is presented by La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment in association with Sue Vaccaro, Ricky Stevens, and The Rivet Gang.
As things stand now, Empire The Musical seems likely to go the way of other “pre-Broadway” engagements that never quite made it to The Great White Way. That’s not to say that there aren’t enough reasons to catch it during its La Mirada run. For its two stars and ensemble alone, Empire is worth a look-see … and you may just learn a thing or two you didn’t know about the building after which it is named.
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
January 23, 2106
Photos: Michael Lamont