Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Sometimes a musical is better than its script: “South Street” at the Pasadena Playhouse
Staple American musicals, if one must define the genre, fall into four categories. The type typified by classic Rodgers and Hammerstein works have memorable tunes, intelligent lyrics and a strongly literary story line. A newer form has edged its way toward the operatic or the balletic, being almost entirely sung or danced or both, telling richly visual tales at a variety of depths. A third, a salute to an individual or group, becomes a glorified tribute concert.
Yet, by far the oldest version of this theatrical genre uses a sweet, simple tale and a lot of contemporary-style popular music as escape. From the early 1900s to “South Street,” the world premiere offering at the Pasadena Playhouse, these shows are essentially feel-good enterprises using rather simplistic romances as a foundation for lots of song, lots of dance, and a neat, tidy happy ending. A fine, facile set, tightly paced direction, lively choreography knitted to the storyline, and an enthusiastic ensemble gives this new show much to recommend it. If only its plot wasn’t quite so derivative, or its lyrics (to comparatively unmemorable tunes) so often so vapid. Yet, to be honest, that is not the first thing one remembers.
In “South Street,” composer/lyricist Richad Addrisi’s songs aid Craig Carlisle to tell the story of one of those “heart of gold” bar owners who redeems those who work for him. At the strip-pole club he owns n the tough South Street of 1980 Philadelphia, Sammy manages to salvage a brother and sister combo, support a fledgling rock singer by giving him a job playing piano for the strippers, and gives gainful employment to his neighborhood’s struggling youth. Flash forward to 1997, with the brother a lawyer and the sister having inherited Sammy’s Place, now a trendy bar in a trendy neighborhood. How did she get there? Will she be able to keep the place? And what of that young musician who left to go on the road?
The cast is a strong one, from the bar’s casual patrons and early pole dancers to the most central of characters. Maria Eberline gives her all as Cloe, a girl who drags her brother out of some small-town mire to land at Sammy’s doorstep. She embodies the tough girl with a heart of gold as she struggles to become somebody and then honor her mentor’s legacy. Brent Schindele looks more like a male model than a rock star, but handles the subtle time transitions and the wistful choices of his character with a gentle grace.
Also worthy of note are Ezra Buzzington’s devotedly geeky barfly, Valerie Perri’s smart but aging show girl, and Harrison White’s genial bartender. Tom Shelton makes briefer, but important impact as the gentle, congenial Sammy. In the midst of all these strong performers, the show-stoppers are the duo of Andy Scott Harris as the young Norton (the brother who will become a lawyer), and the gangling Matthew Patrick Davis as the man he becomes, both of whom manage to make the character a rather fascinating individual far removed from the other, more stereotypical folk who populate this piece.
The team of director Roger Castellano, who gives the show a vibrancy and polish far outstripping the material, and choreographer Dana Sloimando, whose movement and dance fills the stage with a friendly, joyous energy, almost make one forget the stereotypical overtones of the tale itself. Andy Walmsley’s fascinatingly animated set, and Kate Bergh’s distinctly period costume designs evoke place and time without spelling everything out too much. It’s really fun to look at.
In short, though the musical itself is kind of small, this production of “South Street” proves so professional and so tightly performed that one can almost forget the fact. One will not come out humming the tunes, but one may very easily come out smiling at the sum total of the enterprise. In tough times, that is a very good reason to be going to the theater.
What: “South Street” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 – $69 regular, $100 premium Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org