By ANTHONY CHASE
Everyone had a wonderful time at MusicalFare’s opening night performance of “Showtune,” an unpretentious revue of the melodic Jerry Herman songbook, which includes offerings from such beloved shows as “Hello, Dolly!”, “Mame”, “La Cage aux Folles”, “Dear World”, “Mack & Mabel”, “The Grand Tour”, “A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine”, and “Milk and Honey”.
Luckily, it is impossible to go wrong with Jerry Herman. His songs are irresistible, as is the exuberant MusicalFare cast.
A lively crew of six: Anne DeFazio, Gregory Gjurich, Mary Coppola Gjurich, Stevie Kemp, Austin Marshall, and Eric Deeb Weaver resolutely take on the Jerry Herman canon under the guidance and vision of director/choreographer Michael Gilbert-Wachowiak.
Conceived by Paul Gilger back in 1985, “Showtune,” which has undergone various titles and configurations over the years, is the lesser-known cousin of Broadway’s “Jerry’s Girls” which also celebrated the much-loved Broadway songwriter at around the same time.
“Showtune” is organized into thematic segments intended to explore the salient qualities of Herman’s oeuvre: optimism, show business, the turbulence of love, and so forth. There are also ample opportunities (as in all the best musical revues) to create amusing relationships and rivalries between the performers.
Oddly, for most of the evening, none of this is perceptible at MusicalFare. Instead, one song follows another as if at random. There is seldom a passing of the baton from one performer to the next as we make mostly unmotivated transitions between songs. Songs that are taken out of context in a manner devised to give them new meaning, are performed full out as if they were in their original contexts, as if we were seeing excerpts from nominated musicals at the Tony Awards.
There are exceptions. Playful moments of rivalry between the men and the women land effectively in a first act sequence about romance. There are flashes of insightful intention and moments that hit the bull’s eye, particularly in solos. In general, however, this is a roller coaster ride through a hodgepodge of songs.
The evening begins with all the incandescent razzmatazz of a cruise ship show. Our hardy cast, toothy smiles frozen in place, belts out ‘It’s Today’ from “Mame” and ‘Big Time’ from “Mack and Mabel” in renditions calibrated to reach the back seats of some non-existent balcony, and with all the subtlety and nuance of Ethel Merman. Indeed, the staging is often too large for the intimacy of a cabaret stage. Certain numbers and certain performances are better matched to the closeness of the audience. It is also clear that accuracy in lyrics, or comprehension of cultural references was not a priority that was universally embraced here. I am being deliberately vague about whom and when.
I did think building a proscenium structure to provide a backstage and a chance for entrances and reveals was fun. There are times when the tightness of the space is lovingly acknowledged, as when the cast lines up in formation for an imminent kick-line worthy of the expanse of the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and then, with wry humor, abandons that idea to deliver the next phrase in a whisper.
There is no denying that there is talent in abundance on stage. Pianist and music director Stephan Piotrowski, whose amiable personality and humor has previously been showcased on the MusicalFare cabaret stage, is here relegated to the remote shadows of stage right, serving the function of a one-man pit band.
We have some stalwarts of local musical theater giving their all in DeFazio, Gjurich, and Coppola Gjurich. We have Deeb Weaver, who choreographed “The Rocky Horror Show” at D’Youville Kavinoky earlier this season, making his local onstage debut.
Stevie Kemp, a Fredonia musical theater graduate who has previously caught my eye in “Ragtime,” “Beehive,” “Disaster,” “Elf,” and “Twelfth Night” at MusicalFare, in “Hairspray” at D’Youville Kavinoky, and especially in “Big Fish” at Second Generation, is also attention catching here. With her expressive face and relaxed physicality, she is a master at communicating complex emotions without words, often comically, employing her expansive repertoire of sideways glances, doubletakes, eyerolls, and world-weary sighs.
The most delicious discovery of the evening is young Austin Marshall, a current Niagara University Senior, with a flashing smile and adorable stage presence. His interpretation of lyrics is clear and intelligent. With casual command, he owns all of his songs. He glides through his dances seemingly without effort and sings with similar ease. This is a beautifully tuned performance.
Despite my perpetual misgivings, which began at the start of the show and continued to the curtain call, with only occasional respite in the form of surprise bursts of insight and invention, I was also aware that I was in very good humor, rooting for this agreeable team of performers, and having a very good time throughout. The glass of Chablis, the comfortable elegance of the beautiful cabaret at MusicalFare, and the charming couple who shared my table must have helped, but I also derived pleasure from hearing so many wonderful Jerry Herman songs, performed by such agreeable artists. Indeed, it is impossible to go entirely wrong with Jerry Herman. Despite the need for a stronger hand here, a lighter touch there, you can walk into "Showtune" knowing that you are almost guaranteed to have a good time.