BWW Reviews: S'WONDERFUL: Gershwin Tunes Sung by a Super Talented Cast Onstage at MTW
A hardcore fact about putting together a revue-type show with George and Ira Gershwin music: it's a daunting task. Which of the many, many great songs do you choose? Once that's decided, how do you best present them? Ray Roderick, who worked his special talent with Irving Berlin and I Love a Piano a few years back, has come up with a show that is assuredly entertaining with a fabulous cast of five for MTW at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach.
But, alas, there is trouble amiss. S'Wonderful consists of five scenarios, each one representing a decade where music changed prolifically: the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and the present. Roderick has a zippy, flamboyant style to his staging and quick pacing, but unfortunately the piece still has less luster than the Gershwins deserve. It's really difficult to point a guilty finger. The cast do their damndest to make it work, as they sing and dance up a storm. But, some major flaws are inevitable...for example, how can you show a facsimile of An American in Paris from 1939 when so many memories of the sweep of that powerhouse film run vividly through fans' minds? What you end up with pales by comparison. Yes, it's true, we shouldn't make comparisons, but it would be better to keep hands off movies of such towering proportions. Perhaps just sing the material straight forward and full out, minus the frills or any story at all, for that matter! Let the performers create the magic all by themselves. Music lovers adore all these songs...and it won't take you long to warm up to these thrilling performers who sing them: Damon Kirsche, Jeff Skowron, Rebecca Johnson, Rebecca Spencer and Ashley Fox-Linton.
The biggest problems lie in Act I where the three story lines fall short of the music. Act II picks up with a tribute to Funny Face and the crazy Hollywood film-making of 1948. Rebecca Johnson (Jane) has her finest hour in this story as a make-up girl who surprisingly becomes an under-five opposite Damon Kirsche (Gene) as a handsome, but prima dona matinee idol (photo above). Both Johnson and Kirsche deliriously chew up the scenery. This little scene has lots of humor, slapstick and some wonderful choreography from Charlie Williams. The second and final scene which brings the Gershwins into present day is more like a medley for the 5 actors, but works just fine in showing off some of the finest music like "Someone to Watch Over Me", "Swanee" - sung so beautifully by Skowron as Harold, "Embraceable You", and "They Can't Take That Away From Me", followed by the finale with "I Got Rhythm" and the denouement of "Rhapsody in Blue".
The delectable Johnson, Kirsche and Skowron are joined by the petite, pretty Ashley Fox-Linton - also a lovely voice - as Leslie and Rebecca Spencer so fine as Rosemary. This lady has such a great set of chops, a belter with a deliciously cultured vocal richness. They all work delightfully together and separately and this by itself makes the show as good as it gets, with of course the Gershwin music which is wonderful to listen to anytime, anyplace. Deborah Roberts does an excellent job with costuming the various periods of the piece and Kevin Clowes' set design and technical direction with rear projections adds a great deal of color. The orchestra under the musical direction of Bret Simmons is simply divine.
S'Wonderful is a fun evening of theatre, which is most definitely worth checking out, due primarily, as I've reiterated a few times, to its music and actors. Roderick's direction is fine but he may want to reconsider his plotlines and focus more on how to best deliver this simply glorious music in a more streamlined manner.
(photo credit: caught in the moment/salvador farfan)