by Rob Lester
Jonathan loves musical comedy and pop music of the 1980s, so he decided to combine them for his first stab at writing the script for a play. "Why this?" he laughs, anticipating my question. "I have always had a fetish for the '80s. I wanted to find a group that I knew and show choir just rose right to the top for me." Having once upon an adolescence been involved in such a group, he recalled that the students in the choir didn't have much else in common. "But, boy, they all loved each other for that one hour each day. I remember them vividly to this day." Some of the elements are based on his own experiences: "It's odd looking back on yourself as a character." Totally Electric premiered at the MAD Theatre in Florida and is making its New York City debut now.
"I sent the script to some theaters where I'd had connections and the responses came back very enthusiastically. Two of them - well, three now - wanted to plan productions of it." Producers from New Orleans and Florida are showing interest in mounting the show. The excitement is mounting, too, for this busy guy who's wearing many hats. And there are hats and flamboyant period costumes and props being temporarily stored in his tiny temporary studio apartment between performances. "I'm up to my ears in vintage banana clips for the wigs and suede."
Jonathan's theatre career began with performing, at the age of 10, in dinner theater. He most recently played Richard Loeb in the two-man musical Thrill Me, co-starring with writer/composer Stephen Dolginoff. Playing a murderer in that dark piece is a far cry from the fun and froth of Totally Electric, but other roles are closer: he's been in a production of Grease and was Sparky in Forever Plaid. His eclectic pre-Electric resume also includes a stint as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar and the national tour of Oh! Calcutta! with Gennifer Flowers.
"It's not a jukebox musical," stresses Jonathan, because he wasn't confined by having to use the work of one star, songwriter or style. "I didn't start with a list of '80s songs ... [writing] the script to work them in. I came up with the plot and then would see that a certain '80s song fit into a particular moment." He reports that he had no problems getting permission from publishers to use the songs in this context. The numbers include "Manic Monday," "Somewhere Out There," "We Built This City," and the theme from the film Flashdance. "Like musical theater, high school is a heightened reality," he posits, so it seems a natural fit.
Asked to sum up the tone of the show, he referenced a movie hit from the same period. "If Rocky were a musical, this would be it." The various students in the story are trying to succeed as performers, models, sports stars, etc. - all while trying to get through high school and hormones, so there's rooting for the underdog mixed in with the nostalgia factor.
"I wanted to write a musical comedy that was going to be funny but had the right amount of human moments to make the audience not just laugh but care about the characters ... I don't think the funny parts would be as funny if there weren't some struggles they were going through." At first he didn't want to linger on the dramatic turns, but now he's "embracing the heartfelt moments." Though his script provokes laughs and doesn't shy away from campy elements and broad humor, he's serious about being funny and knows fluff isn't enough.
As director, Jonathan found that "at first, some of the actors were going for schtick," so he guided them to find their own realities within the quirky characters. They include the mellow, all-natural Grapenut Brown ("She's her own person, this tree-hugging gentle spirit who speaks in haikus") and Tiara, a legend in her own mind because she's studying modeling and performs outside the school at her grandmother's retirement home, etc. ("She's self-absorbed and complicated"). Jesse is the energetic driving force of the show choir, concentrating on the moves and grooves when not distracted by romantic attraction to a fellow student or bragging about being the nephew of Olivia Newton John.
Twin sisters are among the bitchy bullies; one is being played by a male actor (Chris DeMartino, Totally Electric's choreographer), which wasn't planned. Jonathan plays Jean Michel Valjean, the exchange student from France, another kind of outsider. Based on comments from audiences, the connections are being made. "Everybody can find themselves within one character or the other."
Jonathan is a sincere cheerleader for his cast and had many good things to say about the people he is working with. But soon, it was off to that tiny apartment filled with denim and day-glo, after a very busy week, in anticipation of two more shows this weekend.
Totally Electric: The '80s High School Show Choir Musical has performances at The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street (corner of Seventh Avenue) on Friday, March 2 at 9:30 pm, Monday, March 5 at 7:00 pm. and Wednesday March, 14th @ 9:30pm. $15 plus a two-drink minimum. For more information and visuals, visit www.myspace.com/electrikyouth80 and TheDuplex.com. Reservation requests cannot be accepted by email. Please call (212) 255-5438 to make reservations.
The cast includes Kate Pazakis, Keri Sullivan, Keith Rabin, Genson Blimline, Ellyn Marsh, Shorey Walker, Mark Raumaker, Laura Jordan, Jason Esposito. B. J. Gandolfo is musical director.