Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Robin and the 7 Hoods
Old Globe

Jeffrey Schecter and cast dance
"Walkin' Happy"

Jukebox musicals, defined as setting a story to a group of popular songs written for another purpose, are the bane of many serious theatregoers' existence.  This type of show is reviled as being entertaining rather than artful, ultimately cheapening the theatrical experience for the sake of fast bucks from gullible audiences.

All the same, several jukebox shows have succeeded on Broadway by following one of three basic models.  One is the Jersey Boys, or singers, model, where a group of terrific singers perform popular hits from a particular artist or group with enough of a storyline to move smoothly from one hit to the next.  A second is the Mamma Mia, or book, model, where a storyline is built around the songs and much of the pleasure comes from seeing how the book's author moves the plot from one song to the next.  Finally, there's the Crazy for You, or dance, model, where the story and the music serve as opportunities for a series of audience-pleasing production numbers.

Robin and the 7 Hoods, a jukebox musical now in a pre-Broadway tryout at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, tries to follow all three models for success simultaneously.  Unfortunately, it's currently succeeding only with the dance model, and it could still use a bit of work on that front.

Essentially, the title, which references a 1964 musical film, is merely a shell for a new story and new songs.  Of the songs in the original film, only the Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen composition "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)" survives.  The rest are drawn from the Cahn/Van Heusen catalog, however, and include such standards as "Call Me Irresponsible," "Walkin' Happy," "The Tender Trap," "All the Way," "Come Fly with Me" and "High Hopes."

The book, too, contains only an outline of the original film's story.  The lead character is still called Robbo (Eric Schneider), his sidekick is still called Little John (Will Chase), and the story is still set in Chicago's gangster culture—but that's about where the similarities end.  The time has been reset from the twenties to the Swingin' Sixties.  Marian (Kelly Sullivan) is now a television talk show host who is crusading against mobsters, and Little John now has a love interest named Alana (Amy Spanger) whose struggles with her commitment-phobic man have been lifted directly from Guys and Dolls (a rather audacious steal by book author Rupert Holmes).  There is still a rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor component, but the revised plot follows the "caper" format favored in Rat Pack films such as Ocean's 11.

In fact, the book is currently the weakest element of the show.  The story takes a long time to get started, and Mr. Holmes seems to have gone for riffing on period material, so old and stale are the jokes used to set it up.  By act two, the jokes have become more organic to the storyline, and Mr. Holmes even gets in one very funny song lead-in (to "Come Fly with Me").

In terms of the songs, many of them belong to Mr. Schneider.  His is a pleasing and well-trained baritone, though at the performance I saw he had trouble getting started (which was too bad, because "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)" is the opening number), and he was straining some at the top of his range.  Once he hit his stride, however, he phrased several of the songs in interesting ways.  While he wisely steers clear of imitating the Sinatra sound, he could show that he is having a little more fun with the vocals, the way the Chairman so often did.

Mr. Chase does more imitating (his is the Dean Martin character) than Mr. Schneider, but then, Mr. Chase's voice seems to be more limited in range and ability.  He manages to project the relaxed feel that characterizes Dean Martin's style quite well, though.

Both Ms. Spanger and Ms. Sullivan also have solo numbers.  Of the two, Ms. Spanger has the stronger voice, but Ms. Sullivan has a nice way with a comic lyric.

Kudos especially in the music category to Bill Elliott's orchestrations, which were made for a twelve-piece big band, under the excellent direction of Mark Hummel.  The band's sound is so tight that I wished I could have seen them playing, at least some of the time.

What keeps the musical performance from driving the audience enjoyment of the show is that so many of the songs feature Mr. Schneider, so there isn't enough variety.  There are also long stretches in act one, particularly where the songs are not familiar ones, and the automatic connection of audience to song that drives the jukebox isn't always present.

That leaves dancing, and here we are in the more-than-capable hands of Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw.  The plot is set mostly in nightclubs, so the stage can often be cleared for a dance number.  Mr. Nicholaw obliges wherever possible, and his hardworking ensemble (featuring the acrobatic dancing of A Chorus Line's Jeffrey Schecter) gamely hoofs throughout much of the show.  Of the four leads, Ms. Spanger has a real flair for dancing, while the other three move well whenever necessary.  At the performance I attended, the dancing in act one impressed but did not energize until the tap number "Walkin' Happy" nearly stopped the show about two-thirds of the way in.  After that, the audience happily anticipated each succeeding dance number, and "Come Fly with Me" nearly stopped the show again.

With some additional work (and a larger stage—Mr. Nicholaw seems a bit hemmed in by the size of the space in the Old Globe's 650-seat theatre), Robin and the 7 Hoods could well succeed as a dance show.  Revision of the early parts of act one would also make it a stronger piece.

The Old Globe run has been extended through August 29 on the Old Globe's Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets ($68-$89) available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting The Old Globe's website.

The Old Globe presents Robin and the 7 Hoods, a new musical.  Book by Rupert Holmes, Lyrics by Sammy Cahn, Music by Jimmy Van Heusen.  In association with The Seven Hoods Limited Partnership.  Produced with the permission of Warner Brothers Theatrical Ventures.  Based on the original screenplay by David R. Schwartz.  Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, with Scenic Design by Robert Brill, Costume Design by Gregg Barnes, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, Sound Design by John Shivers and David Patridge, Orchestrations by Bill Elliott, Music Director Mark Hummel, Dance Music Arranger David Chase, Hair and Wig Design by Josh Marquette, and Casting by Tara Rubin Casting.  Stage Manager Peter Wolf, Music Supervision, Vocal and Incidental Music Arrangements by John McDaniel.

The cast includes Will Chase (Little John Dante), Adam Heller (Lieutenant Nottingham), Rick Holmes (P.J. Sullivan), Jeffrey Schecter (Willie Scarlatti), Eric Schneider (Robbo Ortona), Amy Spanger (Alana O'Dell)  and Kelly Sullivan (Marian Archer), with Timothy J. Alex, Clyde Alves, Graham Bowen, Andrew Cao, Cara Cooper, Paige Faure, Lisa Gajda, Stephanie Gibson, Carissa Lopez, Vasthy Mompoint, Beth Johnson Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Sam Prince, Tally Sessions, Brian Shepard and Anthony Wayne (Ensemble).

Photo: Craig Schwartz  

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- Bill Eadie

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