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Review: A Lot of Livin' to Do

January 25, 2016 at 9:33 AM

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Wringing down the curtain on their 2015-16 season of excellence, the multitalented director/choreographer Tammy Mader has brought new life and color to one of musical theatre's classic shows. The Tony winner for Best Musical of 1961 (as well as the winner for Best Director, Choreographer and Featured Actor in a Musical), and also the inspiration for a popular 1963 film version, which starred Ann-Margret, this nostalgic show is pure bubble gum and cotton candy. It's a warm, funny, finger-snapping and toe-tapping trip down memory lane, a journey back to the more innocent 1950's. It was the era of rock 'n roll, bobby soxers, TV as pop culture and a gyrating pop superstar named Elvis Presley.

Michael Stewart wrote a libretto, collaborating with Charles Strouse and Lee Adams on music and lyrics, that was ripped from the headlines of the day. Based on the teenage uproar caused when Presley was drafted into the US Army, these three artists fashioned a musical about a rock superstar who was also about to be sent overseas. His name was Conrad Birdie and he would bid farewell to his many fans by delivering one symbolic final kiss, randomly chosen, to a lucky teenage girl from a small Ohio town. This story merges with another plot line about Conrad Birdie's manager, Albert Peterson, a mama's boy who would rather be married to his secretary, Rose Alvarez, and teaching high school English than being under his mother's controlling thumb. As was typical of all happier musical comedies from Broadway's Golden Age, complications arise but everything ends happily.

Tammy Mader has put her own stamp on this much-welcome finale to Drury Lane's season, igniting the show withbye1 sparkle, affection and joyous, animated, giddy energy. This is truly the musical for audiences who want to simply be entertained, to escape and to perhaps recapture a time when the most pressing issue of the day was who was going steady with whom. Ms. Mader has infused so much style and optimism into her production that almost scene is a good-humored romp. She's directed her cast, particularly a talented and tireless ensemble, with all the happy-go-lucky joie de vivre of a 60's sitcom and choreographed it with fortitude, fervor and flair.

Christopher Ash's set is an homage to the "Ed Sullivan Show," which happens to feature prominently in the musical, dominated by several monolithic structures, bathed in psychedelic colors and patterns and projected with ever-changing images from that era. A turntable provides for smooth, simple and easily managed scenic changes, illuminated by Charles Cooper's kicky, kaleidoscopic lighting. Sharon Sachs and Rick Jarvie have costumed and wigged their cast as if they've all stepped from the pages of Life Magazine.

The cast is led by the magnificent Jeff Award winning triple threat, Matt Crowle, as Albert Peterson. This young man can do anything (Tulsa in "Gypsy," Patsy in "Spamalot") and his comic, Danny Kaye/Donald O'Connor-like mannerisms and musings work particularly well in this role. Mr. Crowle's effortless Fred Astaire-inspired dancing talent is showcased in several numbers, like "Put on a Happy Face," performed on opening night with the talented young Isabelle Roberts. Mr. Crowle reminds audiences of his accomplished vocal prowess, as well, with songs like "Talk to Me" and the lovely and sentimental "Rosie." Mr. Crowle is joined by another stellar Jeff recipient, the lovely and terrifically talented Michelle Aravena (Anita in "West Side Story"). Ms. Aravena stands out in every scene, every song and, especially every choreographed moment. But while she shines in numbers like "An English Teacher," "What Did I Ever See in Him?" and "Spanish Rose," the lady in red brings down the house with her comically provocative "Shriner's Ballet." She and Crowle have great chemistry together and by themselves make this production worth seeing. But there's more.

Kim MacAfee, the lucky teenager who's to receive Conrad Birdie's final smooch, Leryn Turlington dazzles with her bright smile, comic agility and smooth, powerful vocals. She impresses with her tongue-in-cheek, "How Lovely to Be a Woman," and continues with the sweetly sincere, "One Boy." As the gyrating rock 'n roll superstar Conrad Birdie, Jason Michael Evans is spot-on. He radiates adolescent sex appeal as he dazzles with numbers like "Honestly Sincere," "A Lot of Livin' to Do" and the much-anticipated "One Last Kiss." George Andrew Wolff is marvelously droll and funny as Kim's frustrated, wisecracking father, Harry MacAfee. His rendition of "Kids" and "Hymn for a Sunday Evening," performed with the always impressive Brianna Borger as his wife Doris, and (on opening night) Rowen Moxley as his doting son Randolph, are both whimsical and well-sung. One of Chicago's finest comic talents, Catherine Smitko, is priceless as Mae Peterson, Albert's domineering mother. The actress knows how to zing an insult, or deliver a line or a look laden with so much self-pity that Ms. Smitko's Mae Peterson is justifiably hilarious.

In a musical that might only promise to simply be a walk down memory lane, this unexpectedly joyous song and dance confection is an absolute delight. For audiences unfamiliar with the show they're in for a real treat. Besides being entertained they'll be surprised to discover the origin of many Broadway's classic tunes. Those who never lived through that era will sneak a peek at what made the fifties so nifty. And for theatergoers who've been there and done that, Drury Lane's latest show is an affectionate and truly entertaining trip back to a time when we all had "A Lot of Livin' to Do."

Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Colin Douglas

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