BWW Reviews: Spirit of Broadway Starts a PANIC Through September 25

Book, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff
Directed by Brett A. Bernadini
at Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich, CT

My friend and I allowed for an extra hour before the 8 p.m. curtain for Panic at Spirit of Broadway Theater so we could enjoy dinner.  We arrived in Norwich around 6:45 and were a bit bewildered at the number of people milling about the theater so early.  I inquired at the box office as to the curtain time.  We were informed the performance started at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights.  But I checked the website and the calendar had said 8 p.m.  "It probably does.  We should take it down." (and, indeed, they have since taken it down)  Now, had I arrived at 7:45 p.m., I would have had cause to panic.  Now my only panic was could I make it through the show without chewing on my guest's arm out of starvation.  NO NEED TO PANIC.  They sell popcorn and cake.  My guest looked panicked that I might chomp on popcorn throughout the show, but I allayed his fears by inhaling it quickly.

So, we took our tickets and our popcorn and playbills and headed into the theater.  Scanning the program, there is a notice that the theater has purposely omitted a song list for this musical so we won't be distracted during the show, perhaps anticipating a panic of playbill fluttering.  At 7:05, the TWELVE MINUTE curtain speech and recorded announcements told us what to do in the event of an emergency: don't panic -- just have an usher escort you out the door so you don't brain yourself running into an actor.  Phew.  Apparently there is no need to panic before seeing Panic.

So, the big question is, "With a little over a week remaining, should people panic about missing Panic?" 

Specializing in new or newer musicals, Spirit of Broadway stages this musical comedy by Stephen Dolginoff about Orson Welles' infamous panic-inducing broadcast of The War of the Worlds.  On October 30, 1938, Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air's troupe performed an adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 science fiction classic.  Based on producer John Houseman's recommendation of the novel for their Halloween broadcast, Welles and writer Howard Koch transform the novel into a series of increasingly unnerving interruptions and realistic emergency broadcasts warning earthlings about a Martian invasion.  The fear instilled in the listening public causes the titular panic (how widespread is the subject of debate) and a subsequent furor about the power of the fledgling radio format to incite mass-hysteria.

Dolginoff's musical play begins with the Mercury Theater's cast winding down a performance of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.  Houseman, the company's producer and later an Academy Award-winning actor, is cautioning the group's auteur, Orson Welles, that their weekly show is on the brink of cancellation.  In order to save their program and attract some much-desired attention from Hollywood, Welles concocts the sensational Halloween broadcast that has now become the stuff of legend and a benchmark in broadcast history.

No surprise, Dolginoff paints the upstart Welles as an arrogant, cocksure egomaniac.  He most likely was, but he most certainly had the talent and genius to back it up.  One only need listen to the original broadcast of War of the Worlds for evidence, or view his masterwork Citizen Kane, released only three years later when Welles was in his mid-twenties.  Unfortunately, as interpreted by Daniel Patrick Smith, little of Welles' brilliance is evident.  Instead, he is portrayed as an overblown ham with an outsized sense of self-importance.  With a booming  voice, Smith verbally browbeats his castmates and leaves little room for subtlety.   Blessed with comic ability and a strong singing voice, he is certainly a capable performer.  When one looks at the roster of Mercury Theater productions, one realizes that they were building something special using ambition and artistry.  This Welles seems like a blowhard rather than a savvy artist and businessman.

The other actors fight mightily to keep up with this performance.  Some, like the winning Josh Rothberg (as wet-behind-the-ears writer Howard Koch) and the very funny Jessica Carollo (the squeaky-voiced Penny who packs some serious pipes), acquit themselves well.  Others have more difficulty.   The lovely Claire Russell, who portrays Vivian the diva of the troupe, sings beautifully and acts tartly.  Unfortunately she is given little to do between numbers other than endlessly reapply her lipstick.  Fresh-faced Kyle Majewski plays the winsome Jimmy, but struggles to keep up vocally with his castmates.   Matthew Kennedy's performance as the preening popinjay Max is a master class in focus-stealing and over-affectation. 

Nicholas Kochanov plays the role of John Houseman, Welles' producer, co-conspirator and confidante.  Although Houseman shares some of his star's ambition, he senses that Welles' single-minded drive will stop at nothing and be the ruin of the company.  Like Dolginoff's take on Welles, his Houseman does not display the level of brilliance one associates with the late actor/director.  When you are in the room with Houseman and Welles, you are in the room with giants.  In Panic, Houseman reads mainly as a company man and Welles his petulant foil.  Kochanov renders a fine performance that does not hint at Houseman's European upbringing or the distinctive voice forever associated with the line, "They make money the old fashioned way; they earn it."

Dolginoff's music and lyrics are accomplished, but not extremely distinctive.  The Act 1 musical recreation of the infamous broadcast is certainly the highlight, a tour de force beautifully executed by the cast.  The book shows much more promise and I kept thinking that, given the worthy subject matter and the incredible cast of characters, it would make a more thrilling play.  As a musical directed in a somewhat farcical manner, it saps the growing anxiety and tension with so much at stake. 

The set, designed by Mike Billings, is a fantastic cutaway of a radio studio with an urban landscape in miniature visible through the windows.  The costumes by Ruth Tefft are on-point, as is Greg Solomon's lighting design and Steven Hinchey's sound design.  The small orchestra, discreetly tucked away behind a black scrim, does a fine job with the score and balances nicely with the unamplified voices of the singers.

So, in short, should you panic if you don't see Panic?  I don't know, but I do know, to quote another Orson Welles character, "The Shadow knows."

Photo credit:  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231]


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From This Author Jacques Lamarre

Jacques Lamarre has worked in theatre for over 20 years. As a Public Relations/Marketing professional, he held positions at Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks Hartford and Yale (read more...)

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