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Review - Lucky Guy & Sister Act

Unless the names "Noel" and "Coward" are involved, I tend to be a bit wary about musicals with the book, music, lyrics and direction all by the same person, but Willard Beckham makes a very entertaining go of it with his campy, country/western musical comedy, Lucky Guy.

Unabashedly a check-your-brain-at-the-door entertainment, the lively, toe-tapping production revels in its own hokiness, and while double-entendres may abound, the upbeat cheeriness leans toward the family friendly side of the tracks.

Sweet and handsome Oklahoma songwriter Billy Ray (Kyle Dean Massey, who has an obligatory shirtless scene) arrives in Nashville (depicted in cartoon color by set designer Rob Bissinger) as the winner of a song contest sponsored by what is apparently the only honest record company in town. He and the pretty secretary, Wanda (Savannah Wise), set off romantic sparks right away, but while the two are an attractive and sugary-voiced couple, it's the clowns who take center stage in this one.

Leslie Jordan, the charismatic comic actor who has made a career out of gags playing off his diminutive height, plays Big Al (His character's name gives you an idea of the level of comedy we're working with.), a huckster used car salesman looking to set up another lot by sabotaging his dim-witted brother G.C.'s (Jim Newman) struggling recording business. G.C. expects Billy Ray's "Lucky Guy" to be the chart-topper they desperately need, but Big Al plots to have it recorded by hit-hungry has-been, Miss Jeannine (drag artist Varla Jean Merman).

Merman and Jordan devour the meatiest of the show's material with hammy panache. Beckham has his villain making surprise entrances by popping out of an assortment of unexpected hiding places, while costume designer William Ivey Long has the country/western queen parading in assortment of gloriously tacky ensembles, including a hula get-up and a tent-like hooped skirt embroidered with sing-a-long lyrics.

The belty-voiced Jenn Colella, better known for playing leading hot babe roles on Broadway (Urban Cowboy, High Fidelity), shows impressive low-comedy chops as G.C.'s hair stylist girlfriend, who tends to celebrities on the go at her drive-through wig salon.

Musically hosting the piece is a quartet of two-stepping Buckaroos (Callan Bergmann, Xavier Cano, Wes Hart and Joshua Woodie) who regularly threaten to steal the show, kicking up their boots to A.C. Ciulla's flashy choreography.

The farcical plot starts getting muddy in the second act, which takes place during Big Al's hour-long variety show telecast, but the fun score, silly staging and show-bizzy performances keep Lucky Guy humming along nicely.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Leslie Jordan and Company; Bottom: Varla Jean Merman and Company.


Packaged with a slick, professional gloss by directorial gagman Jerry Zaks and featuring some solidly enjoyable performances, Sister Act is nevertheless a bland affair with just enough attractive features to keep the evening from turning dreadfully dull. It's about as entertaining as uninspired material can get.

A West End hit that has received a Broadway-bound sprucing up by Zaks and the abundantly witty playwright Douglas Carter Bean (Evidence of his contributions can practically be cherry-picked from Cheri and Bill Steinkellner's original book.), the stage version switches the setting of its source film from 1990s Las Vegas to 1970s Philadelphia; a move that allows for the musical's best element, a score by Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) styled after the inner city funk/soul and disco sounds of the era. Unfortunately, the book doesn't follow suit, alternating from realism to silliness and leaving audiences to wonder how these gritty thugs, pop divas and holy sisters all acquired the same borscht belt sense of humor.

Repeating her success from London, the talented vocalist Patina Miller admirably works hard as Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer who accidentally witnesses her boyfriend committing a mob murder and is sent by the police to hide out in a convent. There, she saves the sisters from financial ruin by teaching the choir how to attract new worshipers by getting funky. While the Monsignor (Fred Applegate) has been bitten with the showbiz bug ("If you attend only one Catholic mass this season..."), the Mother Superior (Victoria Clark) objects to the loss of tradition.

The book's main flaw is the lack of developed conflict between the two leading ladies. As the choir becomes more popular, their success is measured by the glitziness of their robes (designed with disco flair by Lez Brotherston), but the question of why so much money is being spent on costumes instead of being put to more charitable use is never addressed. Neither is the issue of whether or not the razzle-dazzle is overshadowing the church's true message. As a result, Clark's character comes off as just a grumpy traditionalist with a knack for wry zingers. Miller has a lot of lines to speak and songs to sing but barely any personality to play.

Kingsley Leggs delivers some bad boy sexiness as Deloris' ex and the trio of John Treacy Egan, Demond Green and Caesar Samayoa have their comical moments as his henchmen. The inevitable "older nun who raps" role is handled with dignity by Audrie Neenan.

Photo of Victoria Clark and Patina Miller by Joan Marcus.

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With an uneventful 6pm coming and going on the evening of May 21st, I rested comfortably that night secure in the knowledge that any predictions of the arrival of Judgment Day were, at the very least, miscalculations. But the next evening, as I sat watching David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin, Billy Stritch, Lillias White and Rachel York perform eight-five minutes of songs composed by Broadway's heppist hepcat, Cy Coleman, you'd have a tough time convincing me I'd not been raptured into Heaven.

Devised and directed by one of his late-career lyricist collaborators, David Zippel, The Best Is Yet To Come, serves up 31 Coleman compositions - from pop standards like "Witchcraft" and "It Amazes Me" to Broadway showstoppers like "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "It's Not Where You Start (It's Where You Finish)" to gems from unfinished or unproduced scores like the heart-tugging "It Started With A Dream" from Pamela's First Musical - in an intimate setting by Douglas W. Schmidt that resembles a supper club floor show. William Ivey Long clads the company in elegant swank and an eight-piece jazz ensemble, sitting behind classic-style big band stands, is led by pianist Stritch, who fashioned the sharp and clever arrangements that are colored with Don Sebesky's top-shelf orchestrations.

While Broadway fans shouldn't expect any On The 20th Century comic operatics, Wildcat twangs or a mini-recreation of Tommy Tune's tambourine-shaking Will Rogers Follies choreography, the centerpiece of the evening is an all-around magnificent blending of musical theatre excellence as Lillias White, after vamping the musicians with "Never Met A Man I Didn't Like," plops herself down to reprise her Tony-winning role as an aging hooker in The Life, lamenting, "(I'm Getting Too Old For) The Oldest Profession." White luxuriates in the dramatic depths provided by Coleman's tired blues matched with Ira Gasman's sardonic lyrics, bringing out pathos, humor and vocal thrills in a masterful display of character-driven song interpretation. Even if you saw her back then, you have to see her now.

The rest of the evening is nightclubbier, allowing White to exude more casual charm in numbers like Carolyn Leigh's comically provocative "Don't Ask A Lady" and celebratory "Little Me," which she duets with Stritch in a playful arrangement. Billy Stritch's hauntingly phrased performance of "It Amazes Me" is another extraordinary moment.

David Burnham's jazzy swagger infuses seductions like "I've Got Your Number" and "Witchcraft." While McGillin plays a comical seduction with "You Fascinate Me So," his big moment comes with a vocally soaring dramatic ballad, "I'd Give The World"; one of four selections from the unproduced Zippel/Coleman score for a show titled N*.

Sally Mayes, another outstanding musical theatre character actress, nails all the stinging bite of "Nobody Does It Like Me" and scorches with the torcher, "With Every Breath I Take." Rachel York and Billy Stritch's arrangement strike some gorgeous moods in "Come Summer," but her most memorable turn is a combination of the novelty number, "The Doodling Song," with a flirtatious interpretation of "Hey, Look Me Over."

Without narration or any dramatic thread, Zippel uses tissue-thin relationships between the lyrics and performances to seamlessly glide from one song to the next. And as the evening goes on, the consistently high quality of lyrics Coleman worked with - from the colorful street-wise vernacular of Carolyn Leigh and Dorothy Fields to the intricate wordplay of Zippel himself - becomes startling. But everything about this revue is sublimely first rate.

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From This Author Ben Peltz