And All that Pazzazz!

Over at the Granada, Milt Larson, and the forces of coeval put on a period piece – a musical celebrating Weber and Fields.

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were the star performers, writers, and producers, of early Broadway vaudeville and musicals, starting in the 1880s. They created comedy routines based variously on shtick, slapstick, spoof and goof. In short Weber and Fields were a mixture of Mel Brooks, Mad Magazine, and Marx Brothers in an earlier century.

Weber and Fields created many dialect skits – politically incorrect by today’s public mores, but beloved during the epoch of immigrants. They did wonderful spoofs – which were so popular that producers of other shows would pitch to have their shows targeted. They also garnered the leading stars of the day - the Cohans, Fay Templeton, DeWolf Hopper, and especially Lillian Russell.

All of these elements were being incorporated into PAZZAZZ!.

I absolutely loved the idea behind honoring the history and impact of Weber and Fields. Fifty years ago, comedy writer Milt Larsen bought a box of materials from Joe Weber’s estate. It contained many of Weber’s scripts and notes, and to the young writer it was a gold mine…both of material and historical documentation of the team’s comedic cleverness.

Milt's appreciation for their accomplishments and adulation of their craft led to a life-long desire to preserve their story on stage. This led to his recent collaboration with close friend, Richard Sherman. (Richard and his brother Robert Sherman wrote more motion picture musical song scores than any other musical duo in history: “Mary Poppins,” “Jungle Book,” “ChittyChittyBangBang,” etc.) PAZZAZZ! melded Milt and Richard’s talents to tell the story of Weber and Fields.

A statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square comes alive and steps down to narrate and tie the events of the period together. Cohan is a household name, and his time with Weber and Fields was the transitional era in his life to stardom, so he was a natural for this dramatic device. (I had a built-in nostalgia for this new show, since the last pro-am production I did was “George M!” I played his wife.)

Now that the show has been mounted and played out, it is easier to see what works, what doesn’t, and then edit and switch and tweak. On the to-be-fixed side of the production is the book. The concept is right on, and what was really appreciated was the adherence to history.

However, the first half of the show’s first half was spent trying to line up the story and what it might be about. This was confusing and prolonged the real action. Better to jump directly into the plot and have George explain as it is happening.

The pace was far too slow in areas. Not that the musical was too long (it wasn’t). I found the tempo in many of the songs painfully and unnecessarily geriatric, such as the “Disgust Were All Mine,” and too many of the songs from the first act. In these places, it felt like a week before opening and the cast was in rehearsal to mark the music for a tech run-thru, rather than an actual performance. Also, the level and dynamics of the songs in the first act felt too similar.

The leads in the cast worked well. Joey D’Auria and Joshua Finkel as Weber and Fields seemed to honestly enjoy their roles and gave us a sense of the great partnership. Dale Kristien – star of Broadway’s Phantom of the Opera – did great justice to the role of Lillian Russell...to give us a feel for her artistry and popularity.

She showcased her amazing vocal range and stunning control on “Moth to a Flame” (a beautiful ballad which contrasted nicely from the other song-and-dance songs). Wiz kid Adam Wylie brought home all of the tapping talent, bravado and chutzpah of George M. Cohan. Danny Michaels as Statue George was absolutely perfect as our guide back into time and to place it all in context.

A spoof on Cleopatra showcased the comedy team’s patter and puns. It should be shortened a bit, as it seemed proportionally too long. But the concept to give us a taste of their vaudeville vernacular was quite entertaining and historically satisfying. I’d love to see highlighted a few more exemplary scenes. Because I could not understand any lyrics in the South Pacific bit, that number was completely lost to me…but I could imagine that perhaps there could be more of a build-up for that scene.

Standout songs were: “Cleo, the Queen-o the Nile,” (soo clever lyrics!), “Pazzazz,” “Devious, Deeds,” “That’s Weber and Fields” (but at a brighter tempo!).

The costumes were out of this world…absolute eye-candy. Designer Arlene Larsen is the wife of Milt and you can see why they are a match and co-producers. Her wardrobe creations provided all the visual PAZZAZZ! to go with the drama, dance and song. (Especially clever were the rip-aways.)

My great disappointment was the sound! For too much of the musical, I struggled to understand the lyrics, as did many in my section. I sat downstairs forward of the balcony (row J) in the center. You could hear the singing, but strained to make out the exact words. A friend in the back of the auditorium said she could hear every word fine. But folks around me and in the front orchestra section said they were not catching the lyrics either. Alas! Alack! The orchestra was not too loud in and of itself, but I could not hear the words articulated. These lyrics were a great deal of the cleverness of the show; I was crushed to miss out on any at all.

But bravo to a fantastic concept by Milt Larsen and his team, brought to the Granada (a delightful setting for the this unique show) to premier before his hometown.

Speaking of Unique

This coming weekend, a one-of-a-kind-opportunity event takes place as a benefit for Speaking of Stories. Speaking of Stories is a non-profit that promotes the appreciation of literature through live theatrical readings.

Well, for this special event, their long-time supporter and celebrated author, T.C. Boyle, will read from his novel, “Riven Rock”… at Riven Rock! The Boyle book is a fictionalized account of the real life of Stanley McCormick, who built and lived at Riven Rock.

A part of the estate is now the historic home of Sheila and Frank McGinity, who are graciously opening their home this Sunday (June 29) for the event. Tickets are $100…call 805-966-3875 or visit www.speakingofstories.org.

And a Unique Gallery Exhibit

The Arts Fund Gallery is now featuring the 2008 Teen Arts Mentorship Group Exhibition thru July 11.

This project involved students receiving specialized training and working in small groups of no more than eight. They gained insight into future careers in their respective creative fields by producing portfolio-quality work, and participating in a group.

My talented friend, award-winning master photographer Nell Campbell, mentored nine budding photojournalists. She was joined by other mentor artists Pamela Larsson-Toscher (classic oil painting), Rafael Perea de la Cabada (contemporary painting), and Ron Robertson (mixed media).

More than 60 works in photography, painting and assemblage will highlight the diverse talents of some 27 local students from five local high schools.

The exhibition will be held at the Arts Fund gallery located at 205-C Santa Barbara Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5pm. The exhibition is free and open to the public.