Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Review: EMPIRE THE MUSICAL Aims for the Sky

Kevin Earley (far left) and Stephanie Gibson (center) with the workers.
All photos by Michael Lamont

Empire the Musical has been knocking around in the wings ever since Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull began writing it in 1999. Its first fully-staged production took place at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood in 2003 and it has had periodic readings through the years in both Los Angeles and New York. Now the story of how the Empire State Building came to be is enjoying a lavish pre-Broadway run at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, produced in partnership with McCoy Rigby Entertainment, Sue Vaccaro, Ricky Stevens and The Rivet Gang. 

A splashy 1920’s Charleston opening to “Heydey” sets the tone of director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s determinedly optimistic production as it follows the 14-month task of building the tallest skyscraper in New York. By taking the obligatory dance style of the period and reinventing its character with unique moves Dodge ratchets up the energy from the very beginning and then spins it to capture the fading spirit of the Great Depression. 

Each subsequent number builds upon her vision in inventive ways, from highlighting the winking vaudevillian duo of ex-governor Al Smith (Michael McCormick) and financier John J. Raskob (Tony Sheldon) in “Moxie,” to showcasing can-do girl Frankie’s (Stephanie Gibson) secret to getting results in “Patch in Pittsburgh,” to featuring construction workers dancing up on steel beams to impress the ladies below in a muscularly athletic “Lunch Time” showstopper.

Kevin Early, Tony Sheldon, Michael McCormick and Stephanie Gibson

Equally as impressive are the intimate moments such as Irish immigrants Ethan (Caleb Shaw) and Emily O’Dowd (Katharine McDonough) sharing a wistful vision of the future in “Castles in the Air” and architect Michael Shaw’s (Kevin Earley) idealistic ‘want’ song, “Man of Destiny.” Earley is an appealing leading man whose chemistry with Gibson is reminiscent of the old screwball comedies starring Gable and Lombard or Hepburn and Tracy. The rapid-fire repartee between this reluctant romantic pair speeds along in true 1930’s fashion even when the storytelling makes leaps that don’t always track. 

Empire is an effervescent homage to a time when the girl Friday had gumption, the dreamers had vision, and everyone came together to make the impossible possible.

The crowning glory of the musical is, of course, the method by which the cast builds the building on stage. Co-projection designers Brad Peterson and David Gallo (who also designed the striking set) give life to the towering construction process, and New York itself, by using vintage black and white moving images that are both breathtaking and a marvel of shifting perspectives. 

Computer-generated steel beams swing into place “pulled down” by flesh-and-blood workers while projected store fronts and brownstones become larger and smaller to accompany a virtual walk through the city. The technical effects are quite beautiful in the way they communicate the grittiness of the surroundings and the images are so convincing you feel you could reach out and touch them. As a living, breathing presence it is unparalleled in its scope.

Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting design adds to the brilliant three-dimensional illusion with hard edges, floating squares, and shadows that pop against the squared edges of Gallo’s platforms and decks.

But when the story’s focus switches from the building to Frankie getting fired after an accident on the construction site and a mysterious worker named Bill Johnson, we lose the momentum gained in the first half of the show and it never quite recovers its stride.

The hardships of the immigrants and Mohawk workers who gave their blood, sweat – and in some cases, their lives – to raise the iconic structure are lightly touched on but the full measure of danger is never really a tangible presence. More practical than poetic, they stand for the many that believed in a dream but needed the paycheck and were willing to put their lives at risk to earn a living in the dark days following the Depression. How much richer might Empire be if the underbelly of such a venture could be explored in greater detail? Then the contrast between its energetic ‘let’s raise the triumphant American spirit’ and the sobering reality of what it cost would give this story an even truer picture of the grit and guts that went into the making of a landmark.

One final musical note - La Mirada Theatres orchestra, led by music director Sariva Goetz, has never sounded better than they do here playing Michael Starobins cheeky arrangements. His charts are full of bright, jazz-infused novelty accents that lend a unique character to even the most contemporary pop songs in the show. You’ll hear a great mix of old and new, plus a few surprises if you keep your ear attuned.

Kevin Earley (center) and the company of Empire

The company of Empire the Musical

Kevin Earley,Tony Sheldon, Stephanie Gibson (center), Joe Hart, Michael
McCormick and the company of EMPIRE. Photos by Michael Lamont


Caleb Shaw and Katharine McDonough

EMPIRE THE MUSICAL
Jan 22 – Feb 14, 2016
La Mirada Theatre
14900 La Mirada Blvd.
La Mirada, CA 90638
Tickets: (562) 944-9801 or www.lamiradatheatre.com
Parking is free

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