Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
A New Romance: “Sleepless in Seattle” the musical, at Pasadena Playhouse
Apparently I am one of about three people in the western world who has never seen the film “Sleepless in Seattle.” This allowed me to approach the brand new musical just opened at the Pasadena Playhouse with a completely open mind. Fortunately, I had with me someone who describes that story as “the most romantic movie ever made.” Given this, I could evaluate the show in the abstract (ie: was it good as a piece of theater), and also get feedback as to whether it was true enough to the treasured film not to send people out in a huff.
The answer to both questions is a charmed, if not particularly deep yes. The humor and optimism which radiates from this production can become infectious. The sweetness of the book, by the film’s screenwriter, Jeff Arch, may sometimes border on the saccharine, but plays well as a musical. Ben Toth and Sam Forman’s songs vary from clever and apt to rather obvious, but the sum works better than its parts.
This is, in large part, due to two elements: a focused, emotionally engaged and genuine, ensemble cast and the crispness of Sheldon Epps’ direction. Epps seems to specialize in keeping an episodic tale hopping, and here is no exception. The energy becomes a given, and makes the entire production pop.
The story, for any who may not know it by heart, is this: Sam is an architect raising his son Jonah alone after the death of his wife. It has been a year, but he is resistant to looking for new companionship, until Jonah calls an all night talk show, puts him on, and he becomes the much-discussed lonely man known only as “Sleepless in Seattle.” Annie is engaged to Walter, a good, solid man who loves her even though she cannot help but feel she has settled for security rather than romance. Through a somewhat convoluted circumstance, her letter to Sleepless in Seattle ends up sent to the radio station, is picked up by Jonah and read, and thus begins a drive to maybe bring them together.
Tim Martin Gleason is both strong and vulnerable as Sam. As his gleefully boorish best friend Rob, Todd Buonopane has a delightful time, especially when teamed with young Joe West as an enthusiastic Jonah. Chandra Lee Schwartz manages the balance of wistful romantic and practicality as Annie. Robert Mammana brings a nobility to the hapless Walter. Sabrina Sloan creates the crispness which balances Annie’s romanticism as Becky, her best friend and boss. All of these folks are backed by a strong ensemble which creates character after character as needed.
The choreography of Spencer Liff proves bubbly and current, and works well with the near-choreography which consistently flows people and furniture through John Iacovelli’s equally facile projection screens and pieces of set. Movement is key throughout this show: the build of tensions – which would be killed by lag time – are central to the plot. So too are Brian L. Gale’s projections which move us from the Seattle waterfront to the top of the Empire State Building, and (at least usually) highlight specific performers as they make musical commentary on the fly.
Which is all to say that “Sleepless in Seattle” is not making a huge social statement, and is not intended to. Neither are its songs going to stand out as certain ones from, say, “Fiddler” or “Wicked” do. Still, the show is crisply executed, cheerful, and light-hearted: the perfect combination for an unbridled romantic. Its performers are strong, and make their characters’ humanity stand out, meaning that minor glitches in lyric or tech do not define the production because you are busy caring about the people. And that, after all, is what makes for a good, satisfying romantic story.
What: “Sleepless in Seattle” When: Through June 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $64 – $107, with premium seating for $100 on weeknights and $145 on weekends Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org