In the peculiar little world of theater, there has always been and always will be an ongoing debate between the aficionados of art and those of entertainment. Aesthetes tend to roll their eyes at anything corny, sweet, or obvious, while fun-loving fans head for the door at the first sign of complexity or challenge. Sure, the best stage productions are those that seamlessly combine aspects of both, but most shows fall into one camp or the other.
The Broward Stage Door Theatre is decidedly in the entertainment camp. This company has a clear mission: to keep the Broadway musical alive and singing. With the exception of the current, long-running Chaim's Love Song, artistic director Dan Kelley has chosen a season composed entirely of musicals and music revues. It's a long, long way from Broadway to the boxy theater behind the IHOP in Coral Springs, but you have to admire anybody with the passion and optimism to take on the splashy shows that Kelley does.
The BSD's latest outing is My Favorite Year, a big, old-fashioned musical that enjoyed a long Broadway run recently. Set in 1954, Year follows the exploits of one Benjy Stone (nee Steinberg), an insecure Jewish boy who is dazzled by his new job as an underling for a live television show. He's sweet on a WASPy gal who's also on the staff and eager to keep his bossy mother, Belle, and her geeky family and friends tucked away in Brooklyn. Benjy's Edenic career faces a crisis, though, when he's tapped to shepherd a visiting show guest, the alcoholic, out-of-control Alan Swann, a faded movie star formerly known for his swashbuckling epics. Benjy's in awe of Swann, having grown up watching his films, but the actor is hardly the hero Benjy had imagined him to be.
My Favorite Year is yet another in a long line of nostalgic memory tales about the good old days of New York City in the '40s and '50s, a narrative path many, many writers have trod before. The nostalgia industry has a market here in South Florida, where many ex-New Yorkers live in conflicted longing, happy to escape the snows of yesteryear but yearning for the golden past of their youth, real or imagined. Year is a perfect show for such a market, as it conjures the New York of the brash, muscular '50s, when a business lunch meant steak and martinis, when Sinatra invited everyone to come fly with him, and the whole town -- Broadway, Harlem, the Beats in the Village, and the white gloves in Gramercy Park --knew that Manhattan was the omphalos, the center of a very optimistic universe.
The show features music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, a prodigious duo who also wrote such notable shows as the Tony Award-winning Ragtime and Seussical. Their music for this show runs the gamut from routine (most of the de rigueur cast numbers) to genuinely charming (usually the duets and solos). The book, by Joseph Dougherty, is "based on" the 1983 film of the same name. In truth, "adapted from" would be a better term. Most of the characters and plot are directly from the film, as is a good amount of the dialogue. That's not a bad thing, as the film certainly offered a lot of assets, but this musical might have been bolder in reimagining its source material. Much of the story feels like a movie put on a stage with some songs tossed in here and there. The film itself is based on the real-life adventures of writers working for Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. So here we have a Broward version of a Broadway show based on a film about a television series.
As to the production itself, it also suffers from an overly derivative nature. This is a Broadway musical, all right, but Coral Springs is not 46th Street, and the Broward Stage Door does not have the resources to deliver the full impact of a traditional musical. The seventeen-member cast is formidable, but the offstage music sounds tinny and way underscored. The production elements likewise are threadbare, by economic necessity.
The problem here is not one of money but of intent and imagination. Kelley clearly loves musicals, but his aim to mount traditional Broadway fare in a traditional manner merely shows his limitations, not his assets. Michael Miles's bulky set lacks much visual appeal and seems entirely too complicated when it comes time for set changes. A simpler, breezier style that suggested rather than attempted to replicate a Broadway set might have better served the show. The same might be said for Susan Stowell's costumes, which seem perilously similar to the film's, from Benjy's sleeveless diamond plaid sweater to Swann's camel coat and cream-colored suit. What's lacking here isn't talent or skill: Just pulling off such a big show with limited resources is a significant feat. What's missing is confidence and nerve -- to bring something fresh and original. Sure, we can revere Broadway, but does that mean we have to embalm it?
Kelley's staging is energetic and splashy, with plenty of fast-paced dance numbers and rousing choruses. He's also the show's choreographer; I suspect his dancer genes have tripped him up here. The first act is full of broad physical shtick that's clever at times and lame at others. He's concentrating on the broad strokes but misses a lot of the plot points, especially the early set-up scenes. The story hinges on the TV staff's craven fear of their boss, King Kaiser. But when Benjy stands up to Kaiser to defend Swann's name and thereby gets stuck with the role of chaperone, the important moment gets lost in the staging. In fact, the entire first half doesn't really get airborne until the show settles down into its essential, late-act ballet between Benjy and his erstwhile hero, Swann. At this point, all the jokey, obvious comedic elements fall away and the story reverts to what the film version was originally about -- the relationship between a young man, eager to escape his past and create his own identity, and an older man afraid he can no longer do either. This situation doesn't have to be darkly dramatic, but it isn't wocka-wocka funny either, no matter what Kelley does or wants to do.
The large cast is energetic and appealing, offering performances ranging from overly cute to quite effective. Jerry Gulledge delivers a fine performance as Swann, the best-written character in the show and one based on the real-life misadventures of film idol Errol Flynn, who really did barge around Caesar's show as a drunken guest star. Gulledge may lack the star power of the film's Swann, Peter O'Toole, but he pulls off the role's demands -- charm, humor, pathos, and considerable vocal skills. His two showstoppers -- the first-act closer, "If the World Were Like the Movies," and the second-act opener, "Exits" -- are effective and moving. They are also, significantly, dramatic, not comedic.
Other cast standouts include company stalwart John Fionte as a snappy King Kaiser and Leigh Bennett as Benjy's Jewish mom, Belle, at once charming and horrifyingly gauche. As Benjy, Shawn Kilgore is energetic and winsome, but he misses some of the role's darker anxieties. As Benjy's love, K.C., Elizabeth Sackett seems a rather generic ingénue, but as her charming number with Benjy, "Shut Up and Dance," demonstrates, she has a lovely voice and a dancer's grace. The show also features some truly shameless clowning from Terry M. Cain, Bob Levitt, and Ladd Boris (to name only three perpetrators). Mention must also be made of Anna DeMoranville, who, as a member of the ensemble, shines in a number of tiny cameos.
All right, I give in. I'm joining the entertainment camp, at least this week. There's a lot to carp about with this show, but just recalling the cast list brings a smile to this jaded critic's sour countenance. You won't find Broadway finesse in My Favorite Year, but you'll sure find a lot of charm and heart. I'll take that and Manhattan and Staten Island too.
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