Reviewed Performance 1/23/2010
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
For the last couple of months malignant New York Post columnist Michael Reidel has written articles about all the trouble (both off and on) that the new Broadway musical The Addams Family was having. It hasn't even touched Broadway, and already he's slaughtered the book, lyrics, songs, and performances, not to mention all the backstage drama with its stars, such as Bebe Neuwirth's strong displeasure with her role and lack of direction. Ridel has even written about star Nathan Lane complaining about the director and show in a steam bath at the hotel he's staying in while the show is in tryouts in Chicago, a claim Lane later wrote in the Post. All these attacks on a show that has yet to even start previews on Broadway.
I've seen many new musicals, both in New York and the ones on the road. I've had the exciting pleasure of seeing on their very opening weekends on Broadway such hits as Wicked, Aida, Spring Awakening, and Legally Blonde.
I've even watched the musicals The Wild Party and The Color Purple while they were still in previews on Broadway.
Touring musicals I too have had my shares of highs and lows. There was the festive Stage Door Charley starring Tommy Tune, which was derailed due to Tune's injury while on the road. That musical showed really interesting promise. But then I've sat through such train wrecks as Casper and 101 Dalmatians.
Friday night Dallas Theater Center held the world premiere of a new musical that has not toured, has held workshops, or even been touched by the Gotham critics, titled Give It Up! (playing at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas through February 14).
What they have come up with is such a triumphant, artistic hit that they seriously need to get this production to Broadway.
The musical is based on Aristophanes senescent comedic play Lysistrata, written 2000 years ago in 411 B.C. This was a comedy about a lone woman's curious mission to end the Peloponnesian war by becoming the Gloria Steinem with touches of Madonna of her time. She convinced the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands until they actually won the war! The war was between Athens and Sparta. Yep, the same Sparta warriors that fought in the mega hit 2007 film 300. So think about that for a second. You are telling six pack abs hunk Gerard Butler and all those gym built warriors, "Hell to the no! You ain't touching any of 'this' until you win that war." Ooooo snap!
Aristophanes play was about the power of sex in a testosterone run society and the passionate battle between men and women.
In an interview published in the program, book writer Douglas Carter Beane (using this play as the basis for this musical) did not want to focus on war. He stated, "You can say you're against the war as you watch people go off to war. But to say, actually, I'm against people not caring, people not living life passionately. Basically, if you weren't having sex with the person you're having sex with, who would you fall in love with?
Before you get let out a gasp and start reaching the phone to call the Reverend's wife Mrs. Lovejoy from The Simpsons to start a protest that this material is amoral and dirty, read this review first.
In many reviews of new musicals, I have written over and over, it's the book that is such a vital part to make the material work. It is so much more than just filler to get from one song to the next. It has to have rich detail on character development and storyline to take us on an emotional journey that wants the audience to care not only for the characters, but also the outcome of the story itself. Beane's book is an artistic feat of hysterical laughter, honest, touching romance, and characters that we as the audience fall for.
He has taken Aristophanes play that centered on women and war, and updated it to be about basketball players, cheerleaders, and outcasts all attending Athens University. He opens the show by having the basketball team continue their losing streak by being defeated by a rival college team whose nickname apparently is the "Columns." Maybe I'm biased here, but when I saw that emblazoned on the costume, I grinned and knew I was in for a great ride!
The Athens basketball team could care less if they win games or not, that's not their focus. All they care about is hooking up with their cheerleader babes for nookie nookie.
And that's where Beane earns special praise. He does not thrust or tell the audience in explicit, nasty words what needs to occur. He avoids vulgar commentary to make his point. We know what they mean. Instead it is Beane's brilliant, hysterical comedic writing that lets us know what is "going on." It is not pornographic by any means. Beane steers clear from the gutter. I seriously think that older people just might not get "it" and be all offended. All I can say is, "Get over it."
The leading heroine is head cheerleader Lysistrata Jones, who goes into a library for the first time to read a book about the Greek war and of the women not giving it up until their men won that war. That plants the idea into her head to persuade her fellow pom pom posse to no longer give it up till their boys win a game. Thus we see a battle of the sexes that turns out quite differently by curtain call.
Beane's book is scaturient with side-splitting humor. The one-liners fly back and forth all night long that you miss several of them due to the audience howling on the previous joke. He has interspersed into the book tons of current topical references (like iPhones, sexting, and Tiger Woods). The laughter outpours from Beane's book with marvelous results. I honestly could not stop laughing all night long. It did not try to be hip. Beane just let the humor pour out, which resulted in a tidal wave of non-stop laughter. But he equally wrote in his book the romance to feel, look, and ring truth. Normally the love interest in musicals tend to have a "throw it all on the wall and see what sticks" method. Not here. Beane lets the romance develop within the character arcs with honest, heartfelt results.
Finally, Beane has wisely drafted a book that allows the songs to come out naturally in the journey of its characters. That is a very difficult thing to achieve. Most musicals you do get that sense of "and here's where the next song is plugged in." Not here. The book effortlessly allows the songs to be such an integral part of the story and character arc that the songs just magically appear and seamlessly flow into the musical with meticulous results.
So what were the songs like? I'll put it this way -- by the end of the evening I was really disappointed that there wasn't a cast recording being sold in the lobby.
Lewis Flinn's score is a sensational confection of pop, rock, rap, Latin, and even a dash of old Broadway panache. It does have overtones of boy band and pop tart hits, like Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. But the score is much more than that.
So many of the songs were artfully written with fantastic melodies that allowed the cast to really show off vocally throughout the evening. It has been a long drought for my ears to hear new songs in a musical that had my feet thumping the floor and my head nodding to the great rhythms. The music itself was just so fresh, dynamic, and contemporary. And guess what? No filler songs were in the mix. Today so many of the new scores have an armful of songs that just don't work, but are in there as filler to keep the story pushing. Not Flinn's score. Every song was composed with primo results.
Some of the best of the night include "Right Now opening & operetta," "I Don't Think So," "The Steps Along the Way," "Don't Judge a Book," "When She Smiles," and "Where Am I Now?"
What I admire so much in Flinn's score was that he avoided that path that so many composers of recent years seem to follow, which is that path to emulate Stephen Sondheim. I've read countless articles of new composers saying how much Sondheim influenced them, so they compose these too complex, unhummable, odd scores just to sound "Sondheim-ish" and "artistic," but instead it comes out a complicated mess. Very few succeed, such as Jonathan Larsen and Duncan Sheik. Flinn composed an electrifying score that I can't wait to hear again.
Flinn was a busy man in this production, for he also wrote the lyrics and orchestrations, where again he accomplished great success. The lyrics had impeccable character development and achieved that rare success of leading the audience into the story and in the hearts and minds of its characters. The comedic numbers had hilarious lines that zing, zanged, and hit the comedic bull's eye dead center, while the romantic, lush ballads had lyrics that spoke from the heart and soul. There was no hard-to-comprehend subtext, just straightforward honesty that had the audience in the palms of the cast.
My only complaint in the score is that three characters really needed a number of their own. Gustaf Angstrom and Stratyllis Carter sorely needed a duet to seal in their romance. Because it came out of nowhere, and it was clear the audience loved these two characters, a duet should seriously be composed for them. Another audience favorite, Xander Lee, also needed at least one good solo to give us more of his background and complexity for falling in love with someone who is everything he's against. I honestly think those three characters deserve a number of their own. Nonetheless, Flinn's score is first rate from beginning to end.
Dan Knechtges serves as Director and Choreographer for this production, and the overall results were flawless.
The staging and blocking is in perfect sync with the ever-changing set. He doesn't need pyrotechnics, massive moving scenery, or special effects to get the story moving. He relies on his artistic vision and talents to just let the cast do the storytelling with simple changes of scenery. Actors move with purpose, reason, and this allows the right subtext within his blocking and staging to give the emotion the punch it needs. The pace is sharp, crisp, and precise. I was particularly impressed that while even though the characters all do fall under various stereotypes, he directed his cast to steer clear away from making them broad caricatures. He wisely directed his cast to not being dumb as rock jocks and air-headed cheerleaders, but rather play them with strength and believability.
I also must highly commend Knechtges for giving the actors who were Latin, Asian, Black, and gay to be played without a hint of disgusting stereotype that seeps into so many of today's films, TV comedies, and musicals.
This is how successful Knechtges direction is. When the gay couple at the end kissed, many in the audience actually "ooohed and ahhed" and even applauded louder! What?!? You read that right. A Dallas audience actually rooted and fell for this couple. Bravo Mr. Knechtges, bravo!
I feel like that guy who gets hyper and so excited on TLC's reality show Cake Boss here, but let's add another layer of sweet, yummy compliments on this delicious cake of a musical by applauding the fantastic choreography.
All the musical numbers either have exquisite, layered staging or eye-popping, dazzling choreography. For one number the guys do some amazing tricks with the basketballs. The big company numbers are a cornucopia of jazz, hip hop, modern, and contemporary. Flinn's choreography is so exhilarating that it would make Mary Murphy on So You Think You Can Dance scream so loud your ear drums would explode. His choreography is that thrilling!
Beowulf Boritt's last musical to design for DTC was Tommy, which earned him a Column Award. Make room for a second one next year, buddy, for the designing of this musical. Boritt's marvelous scenic design for Athens University is all painted in azure and emerald tones to resemble tiles. He has four large columns that move all over the stage to create various locations on campus. He must have used Robin Wagner's original conception for Dreamgirls as inspiration with those columns. Another creative design element was that of the sign for the Eros Motor Lodge (it has some words not lit up, so it spells something that had me giggling in my seat). Boritt's design looks beautiful on stage and works in perfect sync with the rest of the design elements.
Ben Stanton's pulchritudinous lighting design is luxurious from the first beat of the music to the curtain call. The color scheme alone is eye-popping fantastic! I swore that Stanton found new colors that have never been shown before. His color scheme is so lush and extravagant that the set looks like a huge bag of Jelly Belly beans exploded on stage. He judiciously created specific lighting to give focus to special moments, scenes, and actor's moments. The company numbers detonate with great color and movement of light, while the intimate numbers are lit and designed with warmth and precision.
Rounding out the production elements is David C. Woolard's awesome costume design. The cheerleader costumes of bright melon and cornflower blue would get a grade A from the NCA (National Cheerleading Association). The boys basketball outfits (right down to the footwear) look authentic. Hetairai's costume design of gold breast plate and flowing red draping complements the actress and makes her look sexy as hell. All the college kids dress in modern day jeans, shirts, etc. that define their characters perfectly. But it was the dazzling surprise at the end that Woolard really went all out. I won't spoil the excitement for you here, but those costumes were out of this world!
A special round of loud applause should be bestowed on the band as well. I swore by the amazing, resounding, and vibrant music that was pouring out, I thought it was a large orchestra. Nope. Instead it was a slick, professional five piece band made up of Alex Vorse (Keyboard 2); Joe Lee (Guitar); Peggy Honea (Bass); Mike Drake (Drums); and Elaine Davidson (Keyboard 1). Ms. Davidson also served as conductor, and she led a rockin' band that shook the rafters off the Wyly Theater.
Going on that same theme of being the head chef/owner on Cake Boss, the final tier of this delicious, eye-popping, mouthwatering "cake" of a musical is this phenomenal cast!
This cast was top notch, with not a single weak performance. The majority of the company are all Broadway pedigree, and it shows on stage. They had such intoxicating energy that never once wavered. They all worked as a supportive, cohesive, and focused cast that made the musical sparkle even brighter. They danced with so much exuberant joy and pristine technique that the audience rewarded them with thunderous applause and cheers. The harmonies were lush, fulfilling, and bursting with vocal technique that brought that terrific score to flourishing life.
The only flaw I could find with the cast was the diction in the opening number. Each character sings a verse about themselves, but the diction was mushy and swallowed, making it hard to understand what they were saying. Also in some numbers and dialogue the diction in some of the supporting characters was difficult to comprehend. But with this being opening night, those are minuscule issues that can be easily rectified.
Katie Boren is Lampito, the Asian cheerleader who delivers solid laughs as the cheerleader who is furious to find out that her basketball-playing boyfriend is cheating with some skank (she overheard them in the dorm by accident). Ms. Boren also has a terrific singing voice that glows in several numbers, including "Right Now-Operetta."
Her beau is Stratyllis "Tyllis" Carter, played with sweet appeal by Justin Keys, another performer who delivers great laughs, sings with an engaging tenor voice, and has one of the best twists within his character in the show. Keys also has one of the best one-liners of the night, of which this cast has many.
Xavier Cano as Uardo Cortez and Noemi Del Rio as Celonice Sanchez play the Latino couple (or as Del Rio sings in the opening number, "'Cuz I'm a wise Latina!"). The chemistry between these two is crimson hot, sexy, and really sizzles on stage. I particularly loved how they spoke in Spanish in their heated arguments, or when Cano tried to romance and seduce her with sultry Spanish words. These two not only looked hot on stage, but their radiant talents burned brightly on stage as well.
Rounding out the supporting cast is Carla Duren and Telly Leung. Duren does double duty in the show, in Act one she is the Athens cheerleader "Mhyrinne" who carries a rhinestone encrusted cell phone along with her sassy attitude. We found out at the end of Act one that because of all the problems that have happened and her losing her boyfriend, she has decided to transfer to another college.
Thus in the second Act she becomes a new character, Tiffany, one of the ladies at the Eros brothel who actually loves to read classic literature. The speaking voice that Duren uses for this character reminded me a lot of MAD TV's Bon Qui Qui.
Leung is Cinesias, the basketball player who is pure gangsta (even though he's not even Black). He speaks in a hip hop mixture of David Chappelle, Eminem, and Katt Williams. Leung even does some serious mean rap in one number. But in the duet, "Don't Judge a Book," Leung shocks the audience by singing with a powerful, splendid pop tenor voice. The vocal riffs he does within the song are marvelous.
Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Preston Sadleir are the scene-stealers of the production. Ms. Chambers portrays Robin Smythe, the intellectual college student who happens to be one fierce poetry slam artist. Chambers physical comedy resulted in some of the loudest laughs of the night. But watch her facial expressions, they will slay you in laughter. Her comedic timing, pace, and delivery is faultless. Every time she was on stage, she had you laughing non-stop. Even when she wasn't the focus, this firecracker of talent was in total character in the background, and still having the audience howling.
Gustaf Angstrom (played by Preston Sadleir) is the foreign exchange student from Sweden attending Athens University. Sadleir has the Swedish dialect perfectly pact down. Heck, the actor even had the glistening Swedish blonde locks that would make Lady Gaga ask him, "I love your hair color! Who's your colorist?" Sadleir is completely adorable in the role and wins the audience's heart. No matter what he said, it was met with boisterous laughter. Sadleir uses his body and facial expressions to the fullest in getting great chortles all night long. But then he warms the heart within the second act. That's why I stated earlier that this character desperately deserves a solo number, Sadleir's dynamic performance demands it.
As the lone local talent, one of Dallas's most radiant stars, Liz Mikel, portrays Hetairai Johnson. This character is a narrator who is more like an amalgamation of several Greek muses, such as Thalia (muse of comedy), Euterpe (muse of lyric song), and Clio (muse of history). But she sung all of them with the diva powerhouse lungs that we've come to know that pours out of Ms. Mikel. But a word of warning, make sure you go the bathroom before the show starts. Why? Because Mikel is so damn hilarious she will make you tinkle in your pants! Her comedic delivery alone had the audience clutching their sides from guffawing so hard. She delivers a superior performance.
Finally, there are a trio of star-in-the-making performances provided by Patti Murin, Curtis Holbrook, and Andrew Rannells.
Laura Bell Bundy, Kerry Butler, Kelli O' Hara, and Kristen Chenoweth: Make room, ladies, there's a new blonde in town and her name is Patti Murin! Where on earth has this dazzling talent been? A ravishing-looking blonde girl who possesses a booming soprano voice that can sustain notes for days. But she also has that rare quality in singers to easily glide from full forte to exquisite soft notes, without a crack to be heard. Several numbers require Murin to sustain big notes, but watch what she does with her big number, "Where Am I Now?"
Murin's use of her acting tools in both comedic and dramatic are equally noteworthy. She does not stay in the "dumb blonde" mode throughout the evening. Instead she shows a girl with strength, determination, and compassion. Her comedic timing is razor sharp, but when it comes to the pain and conflicts within her character arc, it will move you. In some of her most tender moments, her eyes would glisten with tears. This was one actress who truly was in the moment throughout the evening. Ms. Murin has to carry the show, and this girl with all that magnificent talent did just that!
Curtis Holbrook is Xander Lee, the male activist student who fights for all causes, no matter what they may be. His jean jacket and backpack are covered with buttons and patches supporting a myriad of causes. Holbrook is a bundle of energy with the pretty boy looks that would make those Twilight girls squeal in delight and chase him down. Holbrook is such an exceptional performer that you can truly can call him a triple threat of talent.
Holbrook's dancing is completely breathtaking to watch. He has several dance solos that just had the audience clamoring for more. But then again, this actor did just play "Action" in the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story. So how lucky is Dallas and this production to have him in the show! His singing voice is a soothing, marvelous tenor voice that I so wished had at least one big solo number of his own. One of the most wonderful duets of the evening belonged to Holbrook and Murin with "The Steps Along the Way." Finally, Holbrook's comedic timing, pace, and delivery nearly stole the show. He gave a stunning performance. Remember his name folks, I see great things ahead for this talented fellow.
When the national tour of Jersey Boys came through Dallas Summer Musicals, in my review I wrote about the actor portraying Bob Gaudio that he was such a standout that he even outshined the rest of the "boys." His name was Andrew Rannells. He would later go on to take over the role on Broadway. Now here he is again, only this time he not only stole the show, he gave a star-making performance. Mark my words, Rannells will one day be nominated for a Tony Award, his talents are that special.
In Give It Up!, he plays Mick, the captain of the Athens basketball team and Lysistrata's boyfriend. His mind isn't on making the shots and jumping into the air like Michael Jordan; he's more concerned about jumping into the sheets with his hot blonde bombshell of a girlfriend. Rannells sensibly abstained from turning Mick into a carbon copy of dim-witted, moronic jock. Instead this exceptionally-talented actor created a role that could be one second a jock, then become a deeply personal poet, to a confused man who finally has figured out what love really is. Rannells soars through his character arc with the perfect emotional subtext that goes beyond "musical comedy."
He pulls off the comedy with superlative success. His facial expressions are never over the top, but with just a tilt of his head or a deadpan look into the audience results in thunderous laughter. He's like Jim on The Office looking right into the camera. A great example is the scene with Mikel in the Eros love chamber. What he does physically and with his comic timing was so hysterical, he had to hold for what seemed forever to let the laughter subside. His timing, pace, and delivery was always met with reverberating laughter.
Ah, but then there's that resplendent tenor vocals that pour out from this actor that seals the deal that he is a star of tomorrow. He handles the pop score with such gusto, punch, and crystal clear finesse that you never get tired of hearing his voice throughout the evening. It's a powerful voice that really shines.
Rannells happens to have the best ballad of the entire night titled, "When She Smiles." The union of a ballad composed with heart-tugging appeal, lyrics that spoke directly from the heart, and Rannells' incomparable singing voice and interpretation made this ballad the major standout solo of the production. Within the song Rannells belts out superbly portions of the song, but then ends the song with a pianissimo falsetto with such vocal finesse that I could hear around me many in the audience whisper "Wow!" and a ear-splitting applause was given to Rannells at the end of the number. Rannells is phenomenal in this musical, and if they take this to Broadway, a Tony nomination he will indeed achieve here.
For several years now Broadway has been littered with so many new musicals based on motion pictures or TV shows. For every success (and those are far and few), there are many others that tank and kill over.
Give It Up! is that extraordinary rare musical that is not based on some film or TV show. Broadway is really the only place where you can see a new musical nowadays. Once in a blue moon will a new musical have a tryout run. And if they do, it usually is in Chicago or some other city.
Now we here in Dallas have one, and what's even more exciting is that it is a hysterical, romantic, out-of-this-world hit. The gods of theater smiled on this show because all the elements are there. The book, score, lyrics, design, direction, choreography, and cast all match up evenly with blazing artistic success.
The Dallas Theater Center needs to get those New York producers down here now to invest in this show and take it to the Great White Way. Plus you get to have bragging rights over those New Yorkers, because we got to see a hit in the making here first in Dallas!