Friday, March 30, 2007

Easter Parade (The SOB Review)

Easter Parade (The SOB Review) - Main Stage, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, Chanhassen, MN

**1/2 (out of ****)

On paper, it at least seems like an intriguing idea.

Given the recent commercial success of the stage adaptation of White Christmas, it's no wonder The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization that controls the rights to Irving Berlin's Easter Parade was eager to move forward with developing a live version of the classic 1948 Fred Astaire-Judy Garland film.

One year to the day after The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization announced they'd be co-developing Easter Parade with Minnesota's Chanhassen Dinner Theatres -- the same theatres where Laura Osnes portrayed Sandy in its version of Grease prior to being vaulted to national stardom via "Grease: You're The One That I Want" -- I took in the world premiere production of Easter Parade, which they've dubbed, "The Happiest Musical Ever Made."

Just like a big old fashioned Easter egg, this musical rolls along with a terrific color-coated sheen. For the most part, this surprisingly hard-boiled show goes over easy. But scratch beneath that appealing veneer and you'll find more than a few cracks, including the somewhat scrambled book by Tom Briggs (who previously took State Fair to the Broadway stage), particularly where the happy ending is dramatically altered from the silver screen version.

Set in 1910 and 1911, this pygmalion-like story begins with vaudeville dance partners Don Hewes (a dashing and debonair Michael Gruber) and Nadine Hale (a strong, forceful Michelle Barber) splitting up their act so Hale can join the Broadway cast of a show called, "Way Down South," which in this version really goes way down south, far beyond the Rio Grande and all the way to Rio in its outlandish, yet riveting retelling of the dance number, "Shaking The Blues Away."

Depressed, Hewes nurses his wounds with a trip to a nearby dancehall and wagers with his best buddy Johnny Moore (a terrific, self-effacing Keith Rice) that he can turn any of the dancers into his next partner. Out stumbles a bumbling Hannah Brown (gifted musical comedy actress Ann Michels, who possesses a lovely singing voice), who ultimately accepts Don's entreaties.

Predictably, Don sets out to make Nadine jealous by initially trying to recast Hannah in his former partner's image. Both Hannah and Don realize independently that it's just not working and that Hannah just needs to be herself (ironically, Michels really just needs to be herself instead of continually trying to mimic the speaking voice of Judy Garland). Their epiphany gives way to a song and dance act allowing Hannah to primarily sing while Don concentrates on the dancing. One of the show's best numbers, "When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam," hints at the potential that this Easter Parade could have been. From there, we get hints that love is in bloom between Don and Hannah.

Where Briggs' book should have been clarified, along with more precise direction from Michael Brindisi, is in the second act. Yes, there are many terrific production numbers, particularly "Steppin' Out With My Baby" featuring Don and the chorus, as well as a lovely "Mr. Monotony" sung as a duet by Nadine and Hannah (both of which underscore the timeless genius of Irving Berlin), but there's no clarity around why Don would be performing without Hannah, or why Hannah would be singing with Nadine. As I indicated earlier, it's quite scrambled.

But nowhere does this production end up with egg on its face more than in the surprise ending. I won't give it away here, but let's just say if you loved the movie and you're a purist, you'll probably be very disappointed by what happens to the show's lovebirds. Yes, new books can and should take liberties with source material to move the story along and clarify points, but Briggs has, in my opinion, tinkered a bit too much. And unfortunately, I found the "Easter Parade" finale number a few steps short of rousing.

Make no mistake, the cast is exceptional, and there's plenty of romantic chemistry among the lead actors. Indeed, there's also a sweet sidebar love story between Nadine's dresser Essie (a wonderfully sassy Angela Timberman) and Mr. Johnson (comic deadpan Jay Albright, Timberman's real-life husband).

But while Tamara Kangas' choreography has touches of brilliance, I found myself missing the movie's dazzling dance moves from Fred Astaire and Ann Miller (I couldn't help but wonder what a Noah Racey and Charlotte d'Amboise would do in the Don and Nadine roles if given the chance). That, coupled with the misfires in the book, left me understanding why this occasionally entertaining parade ultimately passed me by.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (The SOB Review) – Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Main Hall, St. Paul, MN (December 6, 2006)

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