Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of A Motown Christmas
It's all in the music. Music of this era is my bread and butter, the axis of where my pop music interests begin. I have a strong attraction for the big band sound and the style of music on stage in this show; the music of the crooner era evolved from that sound. In fact, many of the singers of this era started with the bands of Miller, Dorsey (both brothers), Goodman, Shaw, etc. Often, when called to hear a tribute to this music, I run for cover, because it will probably not be as good as the recorded real thing. This is not true for what I heard at Players Center. The uncredited arrangements replicate the style nicely, the 17 musicians on stage play very well, including sounding like a third rate ensemble from time to time, which I am sure is written into the charts. I was amazed to see a number of very young faces in the risers, and by very young I mean high school. The band was recruited by Victor Mangillo, who is Director of Bands at a local high school and often featured in pits at Manatee Players, and who plays the onstage role of Biff Baker here.
Across the board, the singing is fine, and considering that for a number of the performers, this is not music of even their parents' era, they have a solid grasp of the style. All of the ensemble singing and close harmony work are excellent. Credit must be given to musical director Alan Jay Corey, who is a private voice coach also and who appears on stage as Zoot Doubleman. Brother and sister Emma and Joshua Devine play Connie Miller and Wally Ferguson, respectively. Connie is modeled after a youngish Judy Garland, features in "How About You" (a famous Garland number from one of the "and Mickey Rooney" pictures), "Daddy," and "The Five O'Clock Whistle." She has a good voice, even better dancing abilities, and is just so darned cute. Wally is a delivery boy who is allowed to stay in case he is needed, which of course he never really is. That doesn't matter, as Joshua showed his talents last spring in Manatee Players' 13 in a star turn.
Stevie Romero plays opposite Emma as juvenile BJ Gibson. He so reminds me of the aforementioned Mickey Rooneyall that sass and pizzazz. He nails everything asked of him. He could have stolen the show, but the rest of the cast is so uniformly strong that they don't let him. The other girl singers are Lacey Knispel as Ann Collier, Lindsay MacConnell as Ginger Brooks, and Debbi White as Geneva Lee Browne. Ms. Knispel solos on a medium tempo "That Old Black Magic," while Ms. MacConnell gets a whack at "Blues in the Night." Both renditions are so good that my mind wasn't racing back to recordings by Ella (Fitzgerald), Jo (Stafford) or Rosemary (Clooney), some of my favorite singers from this period. Ms. White solos on a forgettable number in act one, then opens act two with "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good," with a beautiful, pure pop technique.
Steve McAllister plays Johnny Cantone, the featured male crooner who is pretty much washed up. He acts the part well; his singing doesn't suggest he is in a rarefied class of male crooners. Bill Sarazen, playing older singer Neal Tilden, gives a performance that covers everything from ensemble singing to solo work (a nicely rendered "Blue Moon") to some Danny Kaye doublespeak comedy. I have never seen him in a part that gave him such a full range of opportunities and he delivers on every one of them. Clifton Feddington is our master of ceremonies, keeper of sanity when it all wants to come flying apart, and he is played beautifully by Derek Dutcher. Craig Engle plays Lou Cohen, assistant director, Jack Morris is Pops Bailey, custodian and doorman. Miranda Becker emerges from the technical side of the Players Centre operation to take the role of Stanley.
Berry Ayers directs and choreographs, and just getting such fine performances from his entire cast is credit enough, but he paces well, the dancing is always in proportion, and this is just a wonderful show. In director's notes he talks about the importance of time within the show's framework and for each of the characters. He makes the metaphor clear to the audience and makes it tell. Ken Junkins provides the set design, which perfectly depicts a rundown recording studio, and is the technical director. Costumes by Jared E. Walker are gorgeous. I love the ending when the men don fabulous period hats as they leave. Tara Foster has designed the lighting which does a nice job depicting the short days of winter.
This is a terrific production, and the story hits all the right Christmasy themes without overdoing it.
The 1940's Radio Hour, through December 23, 2017, at The Players Centre for Performing Arts, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota FL. Box Office: 941-365-2494. For more information visit www.theplayers.org.