Regional Reviews: Seattle
Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl. But that was 20 years ago, when she was a surprise hit for disco. And truth be told, it is time to let the poor girl retire, move to Palm Beach and spend her sunset years drinking Mai Tais by the pool. She should not be forced to squeeze her faded beauty into a glitzy gown of a show which offers no support for her sagging parts. She's worked long and hard, after all. Barry Manilow's camp classic, "Copacabana," has already been nipped and tucked into an Emmy Award winning TV musical in 1985, a 75 minute Atlantic City revue, and gone to London to receive a complete makeover and become a full-length musical.
Copacabana is currently on the road and has made a stop in Seattle's Fifth Avenue Theatre and, unfortunately, is one of those shows which panders to the lowest common denominator of theater goers. I know this is highly elitist of me to say or even think, but we all know who I mean: the viewers that make the stereotypical bus and tunnel trade look like Noel Coward and makes Saturday Night Fever, Footloose and the rest of their movie-spawned ilk seem like Sweeney Todd in terms of depth. How bad can it be, you ask? Well, not bad enough to be good, as it goes for kitsch rather than camp. No, this is one of those shows where you shake your head going "What were they thinking???"
The show does have an impressive amount of talent behind and within it, which would lead you to think that somewhere along the line somebody would have stopped and said "What are we doing?" (that person may have been Gavin Macleod, actually, as The Love Boat captain jumped ship partway through the tour). Love him or loathe him, you have to admit that Barry Manilow writes catchy tunes, and when pressed, can write impressive ones, such as "When October Goes." He shares book and music credit with Barry Sussman and Jack Feldman, (the later two solely responsible for the banal lyrics) who have some decent credits, having worked with Ted Tally on the Obie and Pulitzer finalist show, Coming Attractions. Director David Warren works constantly at the Roundabout and helmed the highly improved touring version of Jekyll and Hyde. And the musical numbers were staged and choreographed by Wayne Cilento, who choreographed Tommy, the recent revival of How to Succeed..., Dream, and Aida. So what went wrong?
First problem, of course, is that it is hard to expand a four-minute novelty number into a two plus hour extravaganza. To fill the extra 120 or so minutes, Barry and company have either created an homage to the Technicolor musicals of the 1940's, or a cobbled together rip-off of said movies, all depending on your point of view. Every cliche imaginable is present: young girl fresh from the farm comes to The Big City to become a star. Struggling songwriter helps her. The two fall in love. Italian gangster who owns a nightclub in Havana drugs and kidnaps her to work at said club. Fiery Latin spitfire helps save the day. You name it, they attempt it, and what's more, try to tie it up in a confusing package ala City of Angels where the action of the show is really in the mind of a young present day songwriter who is penning, of course, the song "Copacabana." Problem is, the writers work under the mistaken idea that by merely copying the formulas you capture the heart and magic that made those movies work.
The songs are a mess of forgettable 1940's pastiche production numbers and 1970's pseudo-disco ballads. The dances are blatant rip offs, even going so far as recreating "Heatwave" from There's No Business Like Show Business right down to the costumes. You've got a Gene Kelly number, the Fred and Ginger dream ballet, the Esther Williams devil costumes fused with Guys and Dolls Hot Box dances, etc. etc. etc. with nary an original idea or concept interspersed among them.
And the performers, all of whom have major credits, are completely at sea and seem to think that it's a show about accents. Franc D'Ambrosio, who has the distinction of being the "World's Longest Running Phantom" according to his bio, plays the two songwriters, modern Stephen and fantasy Tony, with a Brooklyn accent so thick that it not only flattens his speech but his pitch. Darcie Roberts at least drops the generic hayseed accent when she sings, but comes across as a girl so naive that she makes Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney seem like jaded show biz veterans. Terry Burrell plays Conchita Alvarez as Carmen Miranda meets Googie Gomez, and oddly enough the sleazy Italian/Cuban club leader, Rico, played by Philip Hernandez (who has the distinction of being the only person to play both Javert and Valjean in Les Mis) has no accent whatsoever. The only humor in the piece comes from veteran actors Beth McVey (the ex-chorine, Gladys) and Dale Radnuz (Copacabana's owner, Sam), both of whom manage to shine from beneath the mire that is their lackluster numbers.
When the song first came out, The Muppet Show did a wonderful version of the song which was performed by Liza Minnelli. It included giant muppets being hurled across the room and breaking chairs over each other's heads and had the right idea: keep the number at its four minute length and enjoy it for what it is; a piece of fluff lighter than the yellow feather in Lola's hair.
Copacabana runs through February 18th at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in Seattle before continuing its tour.- Jonathan Frank