Review: HITS! THE MUSICAL at Southern Theatre

Youthful cast offers audience a crash course in music history

Photos: First look at Evolution Theatre Company's MCQUEEN

Philosopher Plato once said, "Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything."

The singers and dancers of HITS! THE MUSICAL, which rolled into Columbus on March 16 for a one-night show at the Southern Theatre, strive to prove Plato's statement every night on its current 50 city tour.

Given what seems to be an impossible task, HITS! THE MUSICAL does a nearly flawless job in giving its audience a crash course in the history of music, ranging from the Bee Gees to the B-52s, from Hamlisch to HAMILTON condensed into two hours. Armed with a song list, 500 costumes, a mirror ball, and an array of colored lights, the 29 members, all between the ages of 10 and 22, deliver on Plato's premise.

Colin Mash, the emcee for the evening, opens the 80-song snippet extravaganza with a sermonette about the power of music. Music, according to Mash, serves to remind people of their first crush, their first heartbreak, their experience in the theater, and/or their team winning the championship. (If you're a Browns fan, you may have to imagine that last one.) The show then weaves its way through appetizers of songs from the themes of the stage and screen and a rock and roll segment wraps up the first act.

The second act embarks on a magical, musical mystery tour of the decades. It starts with the 1960s, highlighted by Jaleel Battles Jr.'s stirring rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" The line "Brother, Brother, Brother, there's far too many of you dying" is made even more poignant by the screens showing still pictures of John F. Kennedy and Martin L. King and dancers pantomiming police brutality.

What was interesting about the show is what the producers decide to include and ignore. They feature the music of The Supremes, the Monkees, and the Rolling Stones in the 60s portion, but omitted the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

The Seventies portion focuses on the disco music of the decade, bowing to the Bee Gees and ABBA. The show chose to steer clear of the genres that were emerging, not touching on acoustic rock (the Eagles), glam rock (David Bowie), or punk (the Sex Pistols/the Clash).

The show also mirrors the oddness of the I Want My MTV generation of the 1980s. In a wink to Madonna's video, Julia Davo used similar outfits and choreography for Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" in the first act and Madonna's "Material Girl" in the second. The company goes with dance music artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, and avoids other 80s darlings like U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Duran Duran.

The 90s had a tribute to the divas (Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston), girl power groups (Destiny's Child and Spice Girls), boy bands (NSYNC and Blackstreet) as well as M.C. Hammer and C&C Music Factory. Sadly, there is no dance routine to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which could have been interesting, if not hilarious.

The show closes out with a barrage of hits from the 2000: "Get This Party Started," "Low," and "Forget You" among them. Then Matthew Jost delivers the show's benediction with an exuberant version of Bruno Marr's "Uptown Funk."

What made HITS! great was its staging and its timing. Director Cynthia Nekvasil didn't cast the show conventionally. For example, fifth-grader D'Corey Johnson belts out his version of Aretha Franklin's "Respect," usually associated with women's empowerment. (The song, interestingly enough, was written by a male, Otis Redding.) Belle Bongiorno saunters her way through the Rolling Stones' hedonistic "Satisfaction" and then morphs her voice into a part of a trio delivering Destiny's Child's "Jumpin, Jumpin" with Alyssa Raghunandan
and Kassidy Gavagan.

HITS is designed to be fast paced, moving from song to song without letting the audience catch their breath. Most of the hits are reduced to 30-second morsels which the audience quickly devours and then moves onto the next. At times, one wishes that it would linger on a certain song. Then again, if a song leaves a sour taste with one person's palate, it is quickly replaced by another tuneful one. That being said, HITS! made "We Built This City," voted as the worst song of the 1980s by Rolling Stone Magazine in 2010, sound better than Starship's original version.

This is the first time HITS! has embarked on a national tour. With its built-in ability to transmute from year to year and incorporate different material and ideas, its potential for reaching audiences is unlimited. And somewhere, Plato is smiling about the possibilities.


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