Review: BEATSVILLE:THE BEATNIK MUSICAL at Asolo Repertory Theatre

By: May. 09, 2017
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Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre recently treated audiences to the world premiere of Beatsville, a throw back to the 1960's beatnik vibe. Welcome to Greenwich Village, man, it is 1959. Are you hip enough to join this Bohemian culture? Step inside the Yellow Door Café.

Husband and wife team Glenn Slater (book), three-time Tony nominee for Little Mermaid, Sister Act and School of Rock, co-creator of Disney's Tangled, and Wendy Wilf (music and lyrics), joined forces to create this fun romp through the beatnik subculture.

Long before Starbucks, "goateed artists, turtle-necked poets, and bongo-playing jazzbos" met in subterranean coffee houses wearing shades and berets, listening to bebop/jazz music, smoking home rolled cigarettes and snapping their fingers in lieu of applause. Ahhh, the days of Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kerouac and Doby Gillis.

The storyline of Beatsville was inspired by Roger Corman's 1959 black comedy "A Bucket of Blood," written by Charles B. Griffith. In the film version, a coffee house busboy strives to be accepted by the beatnik patrons where he works. He creates a style of sculptures using dead animals and people that are looked upon as genius works of art and is accepted into the cool kids club. In Beatsville we meet a very square busboy named Walter Paisley (Max Crumm) who tries desperately to fit in with the in crowd. When he accidentally kills his neighbor's cat, he sculpts over it with a lump of clay to hide his crime. Hoping to impress Carla (Lauren Marcus), a girl her wants to date at work, he brings "Dead Cat" to the coffee house and the beatniks affirm his sculpture as a true work of art. Now they want to see more of his work. Hesitant Walter is inspired to create more "sculptures" by a mischevious trio, Natasha (Cayman Ilika), Claude (Charlie Johnson) and Claude 1 (Connor Russell) who follow him like a cat, egging him on. Soon Max's artwork becomes more and more life-size, just about the time the coffee shop mysteriously starts to thin out of its regular patrons.

Beatsville boasts one of the most striking revolving sets, designed by Tony Award-winner David Gallo. Set contrasts take us from Walter's drab apartment into shadowed alleyways, then in to the embellished coffee house. There is so much depth and thoughtful design that went into this set as scenes effortlessly pivot, revealing various scene locations. Duly noted is the eye for detail and clever direction of Bill Berry, the artistic director of Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, co-producing the production with the Asolo. Accomplished cast members are exceptionally talented and confident in their role. Mr. Crumm as Max is the perfect epitome of the nerd turned hipster. Miss Marcus gracefully portrayed the sweet and lovely Carla. Billie Wildrick (Alice) brought beautiful vocals and Marilyn Monroe sex appeal to her character. A stand out in the musical is the vocal dexterity of Cayman Ilika who glides through her numbers and bellows high notes with a punch. It was a delightful surprise to have conductor Kat Sherrell and the jazz band that accompanies the performers as part of the on stage cast and not hidden in the orchestra pit. Kudos to Tom Ellison for some smooth sax arrangements. Steve Orich's orchestrations exquisitely stayed true to the beatnik experience evoking bepop, jazz, and a touch of scat.

Beatsville is such a fresh approach to musical theatre. This is one to watch as it deserves making its way to Broadway. So much Broadway talent and proficiency on stage and behind the scenes was garnered into the creation and production of this show that it merits a residence on the Great White Way.

Beatsville is spreading cool vibes at The Asolo through May 28, 2017.


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