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Review: J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company Commences Premiere Season With SEESAW

The 1973 Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Michael Bennett musical is energetically done on a small scale.

Back in the days before multiple workshops and lengthy regional runs, the geniuses of musical theatre often had to work miracles during of-of-town previews to quickly revise and rewrite surefire flops like HELLO, DOLLY! and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM into Broadway hits.

Andy Tighe, Kyle Caress, Morgan Hecker,
Stephanie Israelson and Chaz Alexander Coffin
(Photo: Russ Rowland)

Or, in the case of Seesaw, the 1973 musical comedy based on William Gibson's TWO FOR THE SEESAW, shape it into a reasonably popular show that spent a good part of the season in town before a successful national tour.

Though the production boasted some catchy Cy Coleman melodies and the gutsy flair of Dorothy Fields' lyrics, audiences weren't going for the retelling of the story of funny, quirky Bronx-born dancer Gittel Mosca, who takes a chance on love with button-down attorney from Nebraska, Jerry Ryan, who has escaped to New York while in the process of divorce.

So the producers called in Michael Bennett, who not only took over the direction and co-choreography, but wrote a new book (with uncredited, but easily recognizable assistance from Neil Simon) and fired leading lady Lainie Kazan, although she continued to give performances while her replacement, Michele Lee, was being rehearsed.

The finished product was especially noted for having the romance set all throughout Manhattan, stretching from the Lower East Side to El Barrio, with stops on Broadway and at Lincoln Center in between.

That guided tour aspect is suggested on the small scale of J2 Spotlight's compact, but enjoyably energetic nine-actor mounting of Seesaw, the premiere production of the new company dedicated to reviving worthy musicals that aren't often done.

Director Robert W. Schneider's production has music director Grant Strom's three-piece band playing behind set designer Ryan J. Douglass' skyscraper cutouts, leaving just enough room for Caitlin Belcik's terrific tap-heavy choreography, occasionally quoting Bennett signatures.

The choicest songs (the comical view of personal ineptitude "Nobody Does It Like Me" and the ferocious declaration of personal empowerment "I'm Way Ahead") and the zingiest punch lines go to Gittel, and Stephanie Israelson expertly delivers on both ends, giving a solidly funny and open-hearted performance, sung with traditional musical theatre gusto. Much of the humor is derived from Gittel's low self-esteem, and perhaps isn't as acceptable today as it was in '73, but Israelson successfully portrays her character's growth from a woman who depends on men to define her value to one determined figure it out for herself.

J. Savage
(Photo: Russ Rowland)

The main male characters aren't quite as deeply written, but Andy Tighe does a fine job and sings with a pleasant baritone as Jerry, the well-groomed but spineless fellow who, accustomed to his bland lifestyle, becomes fascinated with the colorful craziness of Gittel and her world.

In a role that won a Tony for Tommy Tune, J. Savage is a charmer as Gittel's friend, choreographer David. His flashy dance skills and showbiz panache shine at the center of the score's strutting Broadway march, "It's Not Where You Start, (It's Where You Finish)."

"Spanglish", the song that offers a lesson in that combo language, and the funk-flavored "Ride Out The Storm," have been cut, and so have the supporting characters who sang them. The latter has been replaced by Gittel's depression-fueled barroom celebration "The Party's On Me," added to the score post-Broadway.

This entertaining production is a fine start for J2 Spotlight. The company will quickly follow their short run of Seesaw with mountings of NO STRINGS and A CLASS ACT.

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