BWW Reviews: Love In The "Dating Game" Era - SHOUT Is Reconceived By LincolnshireÂ's Marriott Theatre
The Marriott Theatre in far north suburban Lincolnshire has long been a testing ground--for newly-written musicals, or for musicals never before produced in the round. (When you have that many subscribers, you can take a few highly visible risks.) Now, through August 14, 2011, the theatre is trying to breathe new life into the 2006 off-Broadway musical "Shout!," which you may remember didn't fare so well in a commercial run at the Drury Lane Theatre, Water Tower Place, in the summer of 2008. Award-winning director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell and music director and Northwestern University staff member Ryan T. Nelson have grappled with the jukebox songs originally assembled by others, and they use the Marriott's top-notch team of singers, dancers, arrangers and designers to very nearly come up with a winning 90-minute, intermissionless theatrical diversion. Very nearly.
Some jukebox musicals are about the creators of the music (the Tony-winning "Jersey Boys," for instance, or "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," one of the earliest examples). Others dispense with plot entirely and treat the songs as a list of songs, one after the other, like a themed concert or cabaret show ("Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris"). Still others create a plot around existing pop songs ("Mamma Mia") or around a particular album of songs ("American Idiot"); note that one of these uses dialogue and that one does not. "Shout!" is the kind of show pioneered by the Tony-winning "Ain't Misbehavin'" and reinvigorated by "Smoky Joe's Café": it's a show that takes existing popular songs and mines each one for its dramatic, character-driven, storytelling possibilities, giving them to theater singer-actors to bring to dramatic life.
With the new "Shout!," eight dancers (four well-utilized men and four under-utilized women) are added to the mix of five female singers, expanding the dramatic and terpsichorean possibilities and making for a lot more visual interest than one might imagine. And there's only two lines of dialogue. Maybe three.
The musical oeuvre being theatricalized here is the solo female pop song catalog of the 1960s, almost all by white, middle-class writers and performers (British and American), with nary a whiff that Vietnam, the Beatles, civil rights marches, drug use or urban violence were happening. That's not a criticism, it's just an observation of an interesting characteristic. It's not that these songs were escapist, really. It's just that the same old issues of growing up, falling in love and wondering how to get married were around then, too, which is easy to forget in the face of the more colorful and unique aspects of life in the decade between the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate affair. There is (perhaps) a touch of a hint of the growing women's liberation movement in these songs, but just a touch (perhaps).
Singers and songwriters like Nancy Sinatra, Petula Clark, Tony Hatch, Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Lee Hazelwood and Dusty Springfield created great songs, only they weren't grafted onto anything new and exciting and trendy, and have somewhat faded from memory. But if you are a certain age (or if you are partial to a certain kind of oldies) you certainly know songs like "Downtown," "Georgy Girl," "I Know A Place," "I Only Wanna Be With You," "Sign Of The Times," "Son Of A Preacher Man," "These Boots Are Made For Walking," "To Sir With Love," "Windy" and "Wishin' and Hopin'." I count 32 song credits in the program, listed in alphabetical order (which says to me that Rockwell and company really were working on the material, shifting the order and maybe even who sings what). There are also five arrangers listed, including Nelson and two quite capable young men who I suspect were once his students.
The singers are, to a woman, remarkable. Chicago stage veteran Tammy Mader is such a good dancer and choreographer that you forget what great singing chops she possesses. She is also frequently hilarious. Our newest musical star, Jessie Mueller, becomes a women here, taking moving material into unexpected avenues and gutsing it out with her superlative mix voice. Broadway's Carey Anderson (outfitted in a "Patty Duke Show" blonde flip) gets married during the show and uses her kewpie-doll voice to its best advantage. Brooke Jacob is less successful at standing out, but does everything else well. And Raena White (as the lone woman of color in the cast) is a Dionne Warwick among day-glo daisies; you'd never know she was black until very nearly the end of your time with her. Please don't get wrong--she wasn't unblack or fake, she was just doing some great, great pop singing.
Which gets me to the part of the show I didn't like--the end. After working very hard for over an hour to show us how many dramatic possibilities exist in a collection of smooth pop anthems that time forgot, suddenly Ms. White appears for one final time, and launches into a wonderful soul-filled rendition of the Isley Brothers's "Shout!," the title song of the show. The rest of the cast soon swarm the stage and have the audience clapping and singing along. And I realized--this song doesn't belong in this show! And yet, it's the title, so I think they're stuck with it. Don't get me wrong--it's a great, great song, and fun and lively, and the opening night audience had a blast. Only, it doesn't fit. None of the other songs have any soul, any sass, any call and response. No matter who sings it, this song from some other oeuvre, some other worthy place, but not this one. If more songs like this were in the show it wouldn't have stuck out as much. But, unified artistic vision aside, it's a great number!
After "Shout!," we only had the curtain call to go, which (in "Joseph Megamix" fashion) was a medley of sorts, which is fine. Only now, the five singers appeared holding hand mics, again undercutting the drama of the show. It's as if they've come on to say, "Ah, but it's all basically just pop music, so this was really a concert, not a musical." Again, the audience loved it. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know. I liked so much of the rest of the production, I felt let down.
The dancers in the show are used quite well throughout. The men are frequently the boyfriend or love object that the singers sing about, which gives them more to do than the female dancers. However, each dancer "couple" has a searingly sexy dance duet to do during a solo by each of the singers, cleverly dramatizing the song's subject matter that way. Usually, the dancing was more interesting than the singing, which was superb to start with! I wish I could have figured out which female dancer was which, but they all seemed to have brown hair in a ponytail, and I was in the back row (of eight, but still). For the record, they are Lauren Nicole Blane, Jaclyn Burch, Trisha Kelly and Melissa Zaremba. The male dancers were different enough that I could distinguish them, and they each have technique like you wouldn't believe. (They are Giovanni Bonaventura, Jarret Ditch, Craig Kaufman and Sam Rogers.)
If you like "Dancing With The Stars" or other such TV shows, you will definitely enjoy "Shout!" just for the dancing, and maybe even learn a thing of two. Several of the dancers are so exceptional as to be world-class, and soon they will appear on much bigger stages than this one. Catch them now.
The Marriott's house designers do a great job this time. Thomas M. Ryan's set is platformy, and the dangling thingies from the ceiling catch the fancy lighting of Diane Ferry Williams in fun but unobtrusive ways. And Robert E. Gilmartin's sound design is pretty spectacular. But it is Nancy Missimi's costumes that really stand out. Early on, everything is bright neon colors and fun silhouettes. Later, the palette changes to black and white, reflecting (I think) maturity, sophistication and post-marital considerations. Every performer is sexy and used their costumes to have personality to spare. The fun parts of the 60s--no grit, remember--are evident everywhere you look. Oh, and Patti Garwood and her eight-piece Marriott Theatre Orchestra have never sounded better--never.
If you don't mind a show with no plot, and if you like the idea of songs you mostly know coming to life in refreshing and revealing ways, and especially if your mind is over fifty, you will probably like this show very much. I think that theaters around the country will be checking out this production, and they will be much more favorable toward "Shout!" than they were at this time last year. I had a good time, and saw some terrifically talented performers, up close and working their tight body parts off. And I'm still humming the songs, not the scenery. I just think it would be more appropriate if the show were named after its first song, "Downtown," and not its last.
"Shout!" is onstage at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, Illinois, now through August 14, 2011. The performance schedule is Wednesdays at 1:00 p.m. and 8:00pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00pm and 5:00 p.m. Ticket prices range from $41 to $49, plus tax and handling fees. Seniors and Students receive $5.00 off a full price theatre ticket on Wednesday 1:00pm, Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1:00pm and 5:00pm. On Wednesday and Thursday evenings a limited number of Dinner and Theatre tickets are available for only $55.00 per person plus handling fees. Dinner is at King's Wharf Restaurant or the Fairfield Inn (based on dining availability). Free parking is available at all performances. To reserve tickets with a major credit card, call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or www.Ticketmaster.com. Visit www.MarriottTheatre.com for more information.
Photo credit: Peter Coombs and the Marriott Theatre