Review: Pre-Broadway EMPIRE - THE MUSICAL Debuts in La Mirada
Michael L. Quintos
New musicals with Broadway-bound hopes are always immensely exciting to see at the start of its journey, if mostly for an audience to witness an early iteration that provides an "I was there" story to whip out later once the show actually makes it to New York. For that show's engineers, though, the first official full-blown production of any new work is itself a cause for celebration—and, perhaps, lots of understandable anxiety.
Such was the palpable, uproariously cheerful hullabaloo that greeted the opening night performance of EMPIRE - THE MUSICAL, a brand new stage show featuring book, music, and lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull—currently having its "out-of-town" premiere at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through February 14, 2016. Directed and choreographed by Tony Award nominee Marcia Milgrom Dodge (RAGTIME), this ambitious new original musical—advertised with declared aspirations for an eventual engagement on the Great White Way—fashions an early 20th Century era, multi-character narrative about the construction of one of the world's most iconic skyscrapers: the Empire State Building in New York City.
At the center of the show's multi-layered fact-meets-fiction storyline is the structure's chief designer and architect, big dreamer Michael Shaw (a superb Kevin Earley) who has been tasked by former Governor Al Smith (Michael McCormick) and the project's anxious financier John J. Raskob (Tony nominee Tony Sheldon) to help create what they hoped would eventually be the tallest building in the world (well, for the next few decades anyway).
It is certainly quite an undertaking to tackle, considering that the nation just suffered through a huge, nation-crippling stock market crash that ushered the country into the doldrums of the Great Depression.
But, of course, with a little hopeful derring do and lots of "moxie" (via song-and-dance, naturally), this assembled team—with much needed assistance from Smith's whip-smart go-to office gal Frankie Peterson (the magnificent Stephanie Gibson, the show's beautifully-voiced MVP with the rapid-fire zingers)—all set forth to "inspire people in the country to keep moving up"... forging ahead anyway with their determined plans to construct the (initially called) "Al Smith Building."
But like any gargantuan project, it has its share of obstacles: not only did they promise the city that they will engineer a record-breaking 100-story Art Deco wonder in the midst of a tragic economic crisis, but they also promised to do so with break-neck speed, completing it in just 14 months, in an attempt to beat out the Chrysler Building for height bragging rights! On top of that, building materials aren't exactly plentiful in such a sour economy. Oh, boy.
Undeterred, Michael and Frankie—whose earlier meet-cute all but guarantees a romantic entanglement in their near future—set off to draft construction foreman Abe Klayman (Joe Hart) to assemble a willing (read: cheap but skilled) labor force that could get the job done on time and on budget. The impromptu recruiting session—done at a pool hall, of course—yields a crew who collectively all prove to be brave and hard-working.
The workforce is made up mostly of Native Americans (referred to back then as, yikes, simply "Mohawks") led by Pomahac (Richard Bulda); and plenty of eager European immigrants (...who get the job done...) including young, rambunctious little Bucky (Tommy Bracco) and newlywed Ethan (Caleb Shaw) whose worrisome wife Emily (Katharine McDonough) is pregnant with a child back home. She is so scared for the welfare and safety of her husband that she takes part in protests alongside other New York City women against the construction of the building.
But nonetheless motivated by a steady income during uncertain economic times, these workers defied gravity daily as they climbed up the open-air heights in not-so-ideal working conditions that would probably scare the rest of us—all to build this enormous structure that, for them, is a veritable symbol of American tenacity.
And like with every difficult endeavor—as in building a skyscraper or, perhaps, mounting a brand new stage musical—hardships arise and various creative solutions are attempted to reach an ultimate end result.
So, with that in mind, how does EMPIRE - THE MUSICAL fare in its first fully-staged production?
First, the good news: the show, in its current state, is exceedingly entertaining, charmingly funny, cute and cheesy in a good way, grandiose in significant doses, and has plenty of top-notch, high-caliber theatrics that make for a great, well-spent evening at the theater. The opener—a rousing, tap-tastic dance number called "Heyday"—launches the show with giddy joy, setting up what may be its overall mood and raison d'être, and a wonderful way to lure the audience into the show.
And though it meanders thematically from there, actually, much of the lovely 20's and 30's-inspired music (under music director Sariva Goetz with orchestrations by Michael Starobin) feels completely in line with the time period, and many—particularly the spectacular dance number "Lunchtime" featuring the amazing ensemble of laborers—are impressive showstoppers. The physical interplay between the cast and the show's technical and visual wizardry is also worth applauding.
In perhaps the musical's most clever, eye-popping attribute, the multi-tiered sets (designed by David Gallo and Brad Peterson) utilized to illustrate the grandness of this musical extend and retract in multiple configurations while computer image backdrop projections morph in and out to depict settings, buildings, and, most remarkable of all, the high-flying steel beams and skyline above Manhattan. Visually, EMPIRE is a marvel of astoundingly choreographed tech innovations that will dazzle audiences here and beyond (one particular sequence, which culminates into one of the most memorable photographs in American history, earned a much-deserved prolonged applause on opening night and is one of many cleverly conceived highlights in the show).
The ensemble cast for this particular production, especially its compelling lead actors Earley and Gibson, are all terrific, mixing seasoned Broadway vets with outstanding local/regional musical theater actors. In the huge production numbers, they burst out as bonafide stage stars.
The (sort of) not-so-good news, though, is that—as one would expect with a first production—it's got a lot more tinkering and editing ahead of it if the show wants to fulfill its proposed Broadway ambitions. Overall, EMPIRE is brimming with incredible potential, but it could certainly use a bit more narrative trimming and refining (particularly in the second act), and it should also strive to have a better foothold on a unified identity in order for it to feel more like one musical instead of several kinds of shows mashed up together.
Such an admirable undertaking—to combine a goofy, high-stepping, classic musical comedy with the aspirational scope of an historical epic, plus weaving in smaller personal stories of periphery characters—isn't necessarily always a bad thing. But here—in what should clearly be focused instead as a sharp, witty musical comedy about a pair of equally intriguing main characters and the important quest surrounding them—gets overwhelmed with expanded tangents that perhaps do not warrant their own large spotlights. The attempt to give due diligence to additional B, C, and D storylines of other peripheral characters (including a well-meant character joining the workforce in disguise), frankly just pulls the show away from the adorable lead characters' journey... their playful transition from combative colleagues to a cute, adorable couple-to-be—and how their story parallels the upward trajectory of the Empire State Building itself.
Be that as it may, EMPIRE - THE MUSICAL—genuinely deserving of the thunderous standing ovation it received on opening night—may still feel like a work in progress now, but it's hard to deny that it has a lot of down-right impressive pluses going for it, ensuring that this enjoyable new musical will entertain plenty more audiences with its endearing pluck, buoyant musicality, and clever staging for seasons to come. I, for one, certainly look forward to experiencing the next phase of its evolution.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' production of EMPIRE - THE MUSICAL by Michael Lamont. Review originally published for OnStage.
Performances of the pre-Broadway production of EMPIRE THE MUSICAL at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in the city of La Mirada, CA continues through Sunday, February 14, 2016. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard. Parking is Free.
For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310