BWW Reviews: NAOMI AND MICHELLE'S Excellent EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
DUDE. Sometimes you go to a show and swear it was put together just for you.
I approached with dread The Great American Playhouse on the evening of opening night of their latest show. I have been feeling deeply existential in the wake of a slew of mass shootings, Neil DeGrasse Tyson's announcement that the expanding universe will one day discorporate to nothingness. Politics has become a macabre farce, global hunger and suffering persist and temperatures in Tucson are several degrees above normal - many triple digit days before summer even arrives. I simply didn't know if I could allow myself to relax and enjoy a show that was sure to be pure, vacuous entertainment.
I had forgotten how profoundly theatre can transcend. That the people doing the singing, dancing, joke making and storytelling are actual human beings and that they're susceptible to the butterfly effect and the hundredth monkey and that they, too, are feeling the weight of the sky pressing down in these hard, heavy times.
Not only does he deftly play John Adams, John Muir and Douglas MacArthur in the show, but preposterously talented Sean MacArthur wrote and directed it. GAP's newest offering is a send up combination of Bill and Ted, Romi and Michelle, and as many 80's isms as he could cram into a short evening's entertainment. Naomi and Michelle's Excellent Adventure is a delightfully nuanced, masterfully assembled theatrical romp about two volleyball stars who have bogus grades and run the risk of being on academic probation and not being able to play in the championship. However, most triumphant time travel occurs, and they ride a pink phone booth through the space/time continuum pursued by the evil cheerleading squad that hopes to destroy their chances of getting back to 1984. That's it for the spoilers, folks. Go find out whether the villains' wicked plot is thwarted and whether our young women heroes get to graduate and live to play volleyball another day.
The cast is universally fabulous. The energy level is off the Richter scale at times, and there are moments when both performers and audience need to catch a breath. The pace never lags, the staging is terrific - beautifully presentational, no tedious "fourth wall," so what happens in the moment is sui generis to each performance. The cast integrates the dynamics of the whole into each moment, giving the patron a great gift - we know our experience is unique.
The title characters, Naomi and Michelle, were played on opening night by Jennifer Ackerley Lawrence and Amanda Valenzuela, respectively. Lawrence is an accomplished performer in her 30s, and Valenzeula is an 18 year old senior in high school, with a long list of musical theatre credits already on her resume. I only know their ages because I asked. They are both beautiful young women with great presence, command, talent and ability. Their energy is matched each by the other's, their lovely strong voices blend beautifully, their timing is impeccable, and they're simply eye candy with their DayGlo costumes and big hair. Though much too young to have been there, both nail with precision a parody of the 80's light angst sensibility.
Amy DeHaven plays three roles - the volleyball coach, Frank James (Jesse's brother), and iconic woman suffragist Susan B. Anthony. The coach is a character we all know if we ever played a sport in high school - she's tough, savvy and puts education second to athletic victory. In this case, she also sings and dances - knocking it right out of the park. As Frank James, we only know the character is played by a woman because we recognize DeHaven's features. Her physical presence is shifted, and she moves with a center of gravity that identifies Frank as unmistakably male. It's a brief appearance by a consummate theatre artist giving two hundred percent to the task at hand. When Susan B. Anthony entered on opening night, the crowd cheered. She was a grounding presence that brought into focus the ridiculousness of the title characters' get-ups, the general disruptive rambunctiousness of the situation, and the absurdity that anyone ever seriously asserts that women are, in some way, less fit than men for leadership. Her series of lawyer jokes are priceless and when she gets down with a cheerleader in about the most unlikely duet ever, she integrates the idiocy of politics, futility of forced gender norms, tragedy of inhumanity and the gross American deficit of critical thinking, all while getting her sassy beat on. Dehaven is superb.
Nick Seivert plays the high school principal, Benjamin Frankin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is absolutely scrumptious at every instant. Seivert is a master of the art of silliness. He employs a technique known in some comedy cultures as "stepping in." He knows we know he knows we know he's pretending, and dances on the edge between victoriously clinging to the part, being exposed as a fraud, and dismally failing. He skillfully achieves the former, throughout. On opening night, he repeatedly reminded me of Harvey Korman in his myriad roles on the Carol Burnett show. Seivert knows his craft, knows his limits and pushes their boundaries. It's difficult to look at him at any point without chuckling. His energy is like the bubbles on top of a pitcher of good beer. All of his moments are excellent, but his FDR in his wheelchair musical number (not gonna spoil it) is pure comic perspicacity.
It is difficult to mention the name Jacinda Rose Swinehart without using the word "genius." When writing about art, of any description, one of the first things we learn is to use terms like "genius" and "brilliant" sparingly, if ever. In the case of Swinehart, the terms apply, and I make no apologies for using them here. She brings all of her gifts - enormous talent, discipline and skill - to every moment onstage. Her tremendous voice, luminous, versatile face, physical agility and comic timing make her mesmerizing. As a comedic villain cheerleader, she pulls out all the stops, delivering a performance comparable to the best ever, anywhere.
Michael Claridge plays a non-sequitur-ish character called Brutus, Teddy Roosevelt and General Patton. Claridge is an excellent character actor, versatile and infinitely watchable. He is focused, funny, adept at playing the straight man or stepping out as maestro of the comic bit. He moves and sings with the rest of the cast, both a strong lead and ensemble player who I imagine could give us a run for our money as Willy Loman or even James Tyrone.
Brian Paradis plays Todd, the complement to Swinehart's uber-nasty cheerleader, the other half of the "squad." Paradis plays the role as a sassy metrosexual friend, a cowardly, meanish high schooler with an exceptional voice, appealing good looks and terrifically flexible physical presence. It can't be easy to match Swinehart's energy, but Paradis holds his own and entertains consistently. He is sensational.
Ridiculously charming, tall, handsome and impossibly young, Randy MacDonald plays Thomas Jefferson and Jesse James. 19 year-old MacDonald is yet another of GAP's tremendously talented, triple threat performers. His striking, droll portrait of Jefferson is uncanny and hilarious. His Jesse James is the only one you'll ever need. Seriously. Next time you read some history about James, just plug in MacDonald's characterization, and you've got the whole picture. Beyond his subtle acting, strong singing and outstanding ensemble movement, MacDonald emerges as a first class dancer - graceful and fully integrated into his characters and the moments.
Nancy LaViola's choreography is clever and just right, the vocabulary is 80's jazzercise influenced, so there are times with the dance sequences alone are nostalgically giggle worthy. LaViola doesn't blow her own horn and it's barely mentioned in the program, but she and MacArthur are the owner-operators of the GAP, and what they have created is tremendous.
Lynne Perry's costumes are fun and lightweight - she knows it's summer and it's hot under those lights, so rather than piling on the brocade, as so many period costumers do, she gives the performers wardrobe that moves and breathes easily. The palette is just right.
Mike Padilla is the musical director, pianist, pre-show, intermission and post-show entertainer and musical arranger. He is a virtuoso and takes the whole thing way over the top. He is at once the foundation and the icing on the cake, providing accompaniment, percussion and a life force thru-line that buoys up the production and keeps it moving, always with a tempo that keeps the audience sitting forward, anticipating the next surprise.
As unlikely as it sounds, Naomi and Michelle's Excellent Adventure has moments of Swiftian satire and hard, important questions that need to be asked. Repeatedly, one or other of the title characters ask the historical characters, "Why are we always fighting?" A less seasoned author might take the opportunity to be glib, or trite, choosing comedy over historical significance, but MacArthur puts forth jewels of history - small glimmers of hope from the quotation archives of American history. The play transcends, as I said, because the history shines through. It is great entertainment and educational at the same time. When the show ended, I thought it would do a great service to the community by touring to middle and high schools. Even little ones would probably love it.
Speaking of transcendent. The GAP's 60s Summer of Love olio that follows the show is simply beautiful. Yes, it's funny. GAP will always deliver comedy. However, the olio features heartbreaking renditions of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Monday Monday, California Dreamin' and beloved numbers from HAIR, including Aquarius, Good Morning Starshine, The Flesh Failures and Let the Sunshine. Much of the audience was in tears and singing along. There were plenty of comic moments throughout the olio, including a spot on rendition of I Got You Babe with DeHaven and Seivert as Sony and Cher. Lawrence did a terrific sendup of These Boots are Made for Walking, with a backup duo that has to be seen to be believed.
In addition to serving up top notch entertainment, the GAP also offers a full dinner menu, beer, wine, non-alcoholic drinks and bottomless baskets of popcorn. There are matinees and evening performances, and plenty of food and lodging around, so to families the area is a fine weekend destination. The new, spacious, fully accessible theater is air conditioned. They have camps for kids, too.
Information and reservations: http://gaplayhouse.com (520) 512-5145