Review: World Premiere of SUMMER STOCK Opens To A Standing Ovation

Now on stage at The Goodspeed, the production stars Corbin Bleu and Danielle Wade.

By: Aug. 01, 2023
Review: World Premiere of SUMMER STOCK Opens To A Standing Ovation

Summer Stock made its world premiere at The Goodspeed Opera House to a most deserving enthusiastic standing ovation. Based on the 1950 MGM film starring Hollywood legends Judy Garland and Gene Kelley, Summer Stock is a spectacular production with phenomenal dancing, feel-good music, and a sweet story, all modernized for the today’s audiences.

Audiences will recognize and love hearing classic songs by Irving Berlin and from The Great American Songbook, including “Happy Days are Here Again”, “Accentuate the Positive”, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “Me and My Shadow”, “Red Hot Mamma”, “’Til We Meet Again", and “You Wonderful You”.

Summer Stock’s writer, Cheri Steinkellner, takes the original film story to a whole new level that both contemporary and classic theater goers will absolutely adore. Steinkellner provides additional lyrics to upgrade the story to first class. It’s hard to believe that she “got the call” to write Summer Stock in October, completed the workshop draft by March, and had the rehearsal draft ready by June for a July opening. Steinkellner clearly works well under pressure - Summer Stock is a diamond.

In the Writer’s Notes, Steinkellner elaborates on the restrictions of bringing the film to stage (like how heavy farm machinery wouldn’t fit up on the Goodspeed stage) and how she tackled answering the many questions that the original film glossed over: “Why is a Shakespearean matinee idol starring in a musical in a barn? What happens when you make show-people wake up at sunrise to muck out the stalls?” and more. She repositioned and repurposed the film’s original songs like “Howdy Neighbor” and “Dig for Your Dinner”, so the classic elements that film fans are looking for are still there - only, frankly, much much better. Lastly, she addresses the challenge of “crafting a [contemporary] story to support a diverse cast of characters with intention, authenticity, and care.” Steinkeller rose to the challenge, knocked hit out of the park, and created a great musical in record time.

The story is simple and sweet. Set just after World War II, we meet Jane Falbury (Danielle Wade), a doting daughter working the family farm with her father, Lt. Henry “Pop” Falbury (Stephen Lee Anderson). The Falbury Farm is in trouble thanks to the devious and ambitious Margaret Wingate (Veanne Cox), who has grand aims for a monopoly over the Connecticut River Valley. Scheming with her naive son, Orville (Will Roland), they will stop at nothing to own the farm. Meanwhile, Jane’s showgirl sister, Gloria (Arianna Rosario), has moved to The Big Apple to make it on Broadway. She wins a spot in the chorus line of Joe Ross’ (Corbin Bleu) brand new show. With his sidekick and music director, Phil Filmore (Gilbert L. Bailey II) in tow and a Shakespearean star, Montgomery Leach, ready to take center stage, they hit a snag when they lose their rehearsal space. Gloria suggests uprooting the show to rehearse in her family’s barn. Jane, who is fresh out of farm hands, reluctantly agrees to let the actors stay in exchange for earning their keep. The company’s tight harmonies might not charm Jane at first, but they certainly had us swooning. I won’t spoil the entire plot, but will say that hilarity ensues, hearts flutter, dreams are realized, and it’s wonderful.

When I first heard about Summer Stock, I cynically thought that it felt too familiar. The show is set on a Connecticut farm whose owners have fallen on hard times and risk losing their livelihood. They turn to their Broadway friends, who are amidst the usual uphill battle of making it big in show business, and agree to put on a brand new production in the barn to raise funds to save the farm. It’s based on the film of the same name, features music by Irving Berlin, and includes incredible tap numbers, and spotlights America’s sweetheart Corbin Bleu. Hearing that alone, I’d think this was a copy/paste of Tony Award-nominated Holiday Inn: The New Irving Berlin Musical, which opened at The Goodspeed in 2014 and went to Broadway in 2016.

We’ve seen a number of Irving Berlin musicals, including White Christmas, and the most recent Broadway production Nice Work if You Can Get It, starring Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Broderick. So, what more is there to add to this Broadway subgenre? If you’d asked me before, I would argue there’s “Nothing More to Say”. I was very wrong. Summer Stock raises the bar with phenomenal choreography, clever storytelling and humor, beautiful orchestrations, and unparalleled performers.

Review: World Premiere of SUMMER STOCK Opens To A Standing Ovation

Speaking of unparalleled performers, the cast is perfection. There’s not a single throwaway line or character. They’re all exquisite gems and I’m running out of words to compliment them all. The “city mice” dancers and ensemble features Erika Amato, Hannah Balagot, DeShawn Bowens, Ronnie S. Bowman Jr., Emily Kelly, Francesca Mancuso, Tommy Martinez, Corinne Munsch, Gregory North, Kaylee Olson, Jack Sippel, and Cayel Tregeagle.

Danielle Wade sweetly croons just like Judy Garland and swept audiences off their feet. As I left the theater, I overheard two ladies praising Wade for her stupendous performance, saying it was perfect likeness of Garland, yet even more meaningful.

Arianna Rossario, as the sugary sweet sister, is absolutely delightful. Stephen Lee Anderson, as  the veteran and father, tugs our heart strings. Gilbert L. Bailey II and Will Roland had the crowd roaring with laughter as the fiesty music director and innocent corporate heir.

Veanne Cox, as the melodramatic mother and CEO of Winggate Agricultural Corporate, had the crowd roaring with laughter from the moment she spoke her first line. Not to be outdone, J. Anthony Crane, as the over-the-top Shakespearean star, brought down the house with his entrance alone. Together, Cox and Crane generate instant heat, which is especially appropriate since they rock the stage with Red Hot Mamma. The cheeky, interspersed Shakespearean innuendo is fast-paced, clever, and had the audience hooting and hollering. I would see the show again for this duo.

Review: World Premiere of SUMMER STOCK Opens To A Standing Ovation

Last, but far from least, Corbin Bleu, as the show’s director, gives the performance of a lifetime. Bleu radiates pure joy and leads with heart, inviting his scene partners to shine with him. Audiences instantly fell in love with his gorgeous, velvety voice, and, understandably, swooned. Bleu previously won the Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Male Dancing in a Broadway Show for his portrayal in Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, and his transcendent tapping in Summer Stock shows he’s not stopping there. Bleu’s dancing is out of this world! You can’t miss his charming and virtuosic spin on Gene Kelley’s iconic solo dance, featuring the world’s most unexpected dance partner. Corbin Bleu is a national treasure.

Review: World Premiere of SUMMER STOCK Opens To A Standing Ovation

The 8-piece orchestra, lead by Goodspeed’s resident music director Adam Souza, performs the remarkable orchestrations, by Doug Besterman, beautifully. The score is demanding, but the musicians don’t let us see them sweat.

As much as I’m gushing, I would recommend shifting the show to one hour earlier and give it a little trim. Not a haircutter’s inch, but a discreet tidy-up. As it turns out, I was in slight agreement with the obnoxious subscribers behind me, who disrupted a precious moment to voice their complaints, “This is two hours and forty minutes? Way too long!” I nearly turned to fisticuffs in defense of this phenomenal cast, but chose to deliver an icy, yet effective, glare. I digress, but Goodspeed subscribers are truly spoiled with top-rate performers straight from the Broadway stage. In any case, we could use a couple more developmental scenes to fully flesh out the plot, and I’d be willing to sacrifice by shaving a bit off some of the longer dance numbers (“Everybody Step” and “Dig For Your Dinner”) and songs. (Not too much! Just an inch! And don’t dare recast any characters!)

That isn’t to say that the dance performances weren’t epic: Summer Stock has the best dancing I have ever seen, hands down. The virtuosic ensemble, lovingly called “city mice”, perfectly deliver wildly acrobatic displays all with impossibly high-energy and make it look easy.

Director and choreographer, Donna Feore, has made an unforgettable, magnificent Goodspeed debut. Feore makes use of every inch of the stage, making it feel larger than life, and her attention to detail is unsurpassed. The choreography is out of this world!

Wilson Chin, scenic designer, set the stage beautifully. The Technicolor New England farm-turned-theater is framed with classic red-sided barn, delicate florals climbing the walls, and hurricane lanterns lovingly displayed as accent pieces.

Summer Stock is Goodspeed’s best original production ever. The 12, which opens next, has very big shoes to fill.

Summer Stock has its eyes set on Broadway. Does Summer Stock deserve a Broadway run? Absolutely. In this critic’s opinion, it couldn’t get there soon enough.  Perhaps my favorite aspect of the production were the many comedic theater flourishes. Broadway audiences will cry with laughter when they watch the city mice (actors) learn how to play the part of farmhands: “What is the farmer’s motivation?” “E-I, E-I!” Frankly, I want an original cast album yesterday. Finally, when it opens on Broadway, you’ll wish you had seen at The Goodspeed first.

Review: World Premiere of SUMMER STOCK Opens To A Standing Ovation


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