If you weren't listening carefully while disco-ing to "Copacabana (At the Copa)" by Barry Manilow in the 70s, you may not have noticed that there was a story in the song. Enough of a story to inspire a musical as was recently proved in the North America premiere of Barry Manilow's Copacabana the Musical in Pittsburgh. In the song, the story of Lola, Tony, and Rico is a flashback for Lola who ends up at the bar drinking herself "half-blind." In the musical, Lola's demise is ignored and the story is set in 1947 as a "composer's daydream" for Stephen, a modern day struggling songwriter.
The 42nd Street-ish story is simple and is appropriately played light and slightly corny, with more than one wink at the audience. Any doubt that Manilow would be able to stretch the song into an entire score vanishes upon hearing the impressive collection of songs he, Bruce Sussman (Harmony, Miami, Coming Attractions) and Jack Feldman (Isn't It Romantic, Coming Attractions, "Newsies", "Oliver & Company", and the original song "Copacabana") have created. Except for the bubble-gum style "Sweet Heaven," the songs are notable and polished, all styled perfectly for their placement in the show.
Franc D'Ambrosio (Stephen/Tony) leads the cast well. The "World's Longest Running Phantom" shows his versatility as well as his considerable vocal talents as he practically carries the show. His Brooklyn-born Tony is animated and likeable. Darcie Roberts (Lola) plays the Tulsa hick well - she sings, dances, and plays the comic bits with enthusiasm and charm. Beth McVey (Gladys) not only plays the ubiquitous "Eve Arden role", she almost channels Ms. Arden herself. McVey really shows her stuff in her big number "When You're a Copy Girl."
Philip Hernandez (Rico) has the toughest part in the show - Rico is really a one-dimensional character. He brings up the most questions in this production (why was he so impressed with Lola that he had to drug her and kidnap her?) and must deliver the weakest lines in the show, including the sinister warning, "Accidents can be contagious!" Having played both Javert and Valjean in Broadway's Les Miserables, Hernandez's voice is better than he is able to showcase in this role. Gavin MacLeod (Sam Silver) fulfills the "look - he used to be on TV" role well, including a charming presentation of the comedy song "Who Am I Kidding" in Act Two. Terry Burrell (Conchita) is delightful as the "aging" Havana singer. The ensemble is full of potential stars, with the male dancers being given the most opportunities to show-off their athletic talents.
The direction by David Warren (tour of Jekyll & Hyde) still shows a few weak spots, including the merging of the past and the present at the start of Act Two, but for the most part goes a long way to pull together the sketchy story. The sets by Derek McLane (Present Laughter on Broadway and Saturday Night Off-Broadway) are good, but should be pumped up if the show hits Broadway. The costume designs of Tony Award winner David C. Woolard (The Who's Tommy) are at times adequate, occassionally inventive. Donald Holder (The Lion King, Juan Darien) provides lighting that brings out the best of the both the sets and the costumes. Wayne Cilento's (Tommy, How to Succeed ..., Dream: The Johnny Mercer Musical) choreography sparkles and, along with the fabulous orchestra, presents the title song in the curtain call that is worth the price of admission.
Copacabana is presented by produced by Pittsburgh CLO and Dallas Summer Musicals, in association with Garry Kief, John Ashby and Stiletto Entertainment. The show runs through July 2 at the Benedum Theatre in Pittsburgh. Call (412) 281-2822 for ticket information. The tour continues to Atlanta, Chicago, and Toronto (see the official tour site for more information).