Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
What If? A Musical Revue
As parody goes, this is heady stuff. Bruce Kimmel's parody lyrics, married to Jerry Bock's original music, manage to gently mock both A Chorus Line and Fiddler on the Roof. The choreography, by Cheryl Baxter and Joseph R. McKee, also does double duty, getting laughs by combining the raised-arms-traditional-dancing of Fiddler with the tip-the-invisible-hat steps from A Chorus Line. It's two-for-the-price-of-one comedy that's a musical theatre lover's dream.
This "What if" parody number, and others like it, spice up the new show What If? A Musical Revue. As can be expected, some of the parody numbers hit better than others. The best of the bunch are those which, like the Bock and Harnick A Chorus Line, attempt to enact the story of one show through the music of another. Thus, even though we only get a single number from this A Chorus Line, we can still spot Cassie and Val among the dancers, and can chuckle at the quick nods to their plotlines. Less successful are the "what ifs" that don't act out a show, but instead simply tell the story of one show to the tune of another. Menken and Ashman's Phantom of the Opera, for example, simply narrates the story of the Phantom to the tune of "Belle." It's cute and witty, but doesn't come anywhere near the laughs of, say, Frank Loesser's Sweeney Todd, in which Sweeney himself is singing, "Sit Down, I'm Slitting Your Throat."
But even the weakest of the parody numbers is delightful compared to the remainder of the revue. As the opening number tells us, What If? isn't only a parody show - it's a musical in which parody numbers are sung along with musical theatre and cabaret numbers that don't get sung very often. The result is a fairly routine cabaret show in which every third number has the potential to be drop-dead funny. You can almost feel the audience sit up straighter every time one of the performers walks onstage and poses a question beginning with "What if."
As a cabaret revue, the show's fifteen non-parody songs are of varying quality, and few of the performances go any great distance to showcasing the talent involved. But the more troublesome problem is that the songs actually work against the comic spirit of the evening. One of the best parody moments in the show comes late in the second act, when the cast ponders what would happen if Broadway shows produced "Coming Attraction" trailers in the same style films use. This hysterically funny bit is followed by the wistful song of lost love, "Chinese Food in Bed" (also by Kimmel). Actor Ryan Raftery has the impossible task of starting this delicate number while the audience is still suppressing chuckles at the "Coming Attraction." Worse yet, Raftery's delivery - which is actually quite good - kills the joyful comic high the cast had just created with the "Coming Attraction."
What If? includes some non-parody numbers that are still light-hearted or funny. Billy Barnes's tribute to plastic surgery, "A Little Lift," is charmingly sold by Susanne Blakeslee (who also does a drop-dead funny Julie Andrews in a "What if" number) and Raftery has a near-showstopper with his purposely over-the-top delivery of "Parsley," a cheesy version of a "Mr. Cellophane"-type song. These songs could fit in an evening of comedy highlighted by the "What if" numbers. But the sad songs of despair, longing and loss that are also featured in What If? simply do not belong there.
What If? has the potential to become the next Forbidden Broadway. It just needs more. More than half of the show is set: the "What if" numbers are (at worst) solid; the show's single comic sketch (the "Coming Attraction") is so good, similar treatment for other musicals could be added; the show has a successful running gag; and some of the show's lighter cabaret numbers fit the feel of a good comic theatre evening. What If? just needs to toss the bulk of its cabaret numbers, and have Bruce Kimmel sit down and write more funny.
What If? runs at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood through September 18, 2004. For tickets, see www.plays411.com or call (323) 960-7603.
Ellafrankie Productions and Kritzerland Entertainment Present What If? - A Musical Revue. Directed by Bruce Kimmel. Choreography by Cheryl Baxter and Joseph R. McKee; Music Direction by Jose C. Simbulan; Light Design by Steve Pope; Set Design by Melissa Ficociello; Sound Design by Brandon Baruch; Costume Design by Amy Adams; Production Stage Manager Dale Alan Cooke. Press Representative Steve Moyer.
Cast: Susanne Blakeslee, Paul Haber, Tammy Minoff, Ryan Raftery and Alet Taylor.
Photo by Chris Mastro