Gonna Build a Building 🎭 “Empire” @ LaMirada

Empire the Musical (LaMirada)userpic=theatre_musicalsThere’s a problem with certain titles and shows. For example, consider Titanic — either the movie or the musical. You know what is going to happen: the ship is going to sink. You center the show around the subject of the title, and there won’t be any story of interest. Fate is preordained. But find an interesting story related to that subject, and things might survive. Titanic the movie wasn’t the story of the ship — it was the story of Jack and Rose. Titanic the Musical wasn’t the story of the ship — it was the story of the class system, the people on board, and the battles over the construction of the ship.

Last night, we saw Empire – The Musical at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB). Guess what. They build the building and it is taller than the Chrysler Building (which, in actuality, was only the world’s tallest building for 11 months)

Given that we know that the building will be built, where’s the story in Empire? It’s a good question … and it must be answered quickly, because the audience will be wondering. After all, there hasn’t been a successful musical about a skyscraper in New York before. If you think about it, there are only two possibilities: the battle over the construction of the building, and stories about people related to the building. The former has the problem of foreknowledge: you know that whatever the story is, the building will be built.

This is the problem that Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull faced. They had to find a story that worked, and build a musical around that. Before I go into what they did and how it worked (or didn’t), here’s the BLUF: the execution was spectacular and the resultant building was beautiful, but the internal structure is not as strong as it could be, and it is unclearer whether the building, as currently constructed, will survive the journey to the other coast.

The story that Sherman and Hull opted to tell is primarily about the clash and romance between the lead architect, and the “Can Do” gal of Al Smith, ex-Governor of New York, who he has on the project to ensure it gets done right. There are secondary stories about the construction workers on the building, who are putting their lives on the line to build the building. I’m hesitant to go into too many details on the latter, as I don’t want to spoil the few reveals in the story.

Either of the two could work for the story — the audience just needs to have their expectations managed. This is where the problems of this show lie. The first act of the show focuses too much on the known result: Will the building get built? Who will build it? It doesn’t rapidly set up and get us into the story it wants to tell: the love story of the architect and the “Can Do” gal, or the story of the workers and their sacrifices. The focus is on the building of the building, not getting to know these characters and their inner desires. Musicals excel when they tell the story of people, and use their music to highlight the inner story and conflict within — the songs in our hearts, so to speak. Musicals fail when they focus on the scaffolding — the songs of the place and the surroundings.

The first act exemplifies these failures: we never get to know our lead characters as people. Who is Michael Shaw, the architect, other than some young kid who wants to build the building? Who is Frankie Peterson, other than a “Can Do” gal who can pull a solution out of anything? Who is Ethan O’Dowd, other than a possible new father, working on the building? We never find these things out (or, to the extent we do, they are told to us very briefly). Instead, we learn about the desire and conflicts to build the building, the stereotypical cat-calls of the crew, and the importance of “moxie”. My belief — and I’m clearly an observer in the cheap seats — is that for this musical to succeed, the first act needs to be trimmed and focused more on the inner desires of the people, and less on the place.  The musical may be called Empire , but it’s focus cannot be on the physical structure being built — it needs to be on what else is being built and destroyed around that building.

In other words, at least with respect to the first act, this show doesn’t clearly set out the vision of what it wants to be, and what story it clearly wants to tell. The audience, by intermission, is wondering why they are seeing this. They aren’t fully invested in the people they need to care about — they are distracted by the building.

Luckily, the second act of the story redeems the effort, primarily because it focuses on precisely that which the first act forgot: the people. We get to know the leads beyond their stereotypes, and appreciate their connection. We get to know more stories about the workers. The ultimate end of the story is good, but the path there was problematic.

The other problem on the path — and one that might doom this show — is reflected in real life. The Empire State Building was once the tallest building in NYC. It isn’t now; it has been eclipsed by newer and flasher buildings the reflect modern sensibilities. The older buildings can be retrofit to add some modernity, but they are still old buildings. Some old buildings are so well constructed that the lack of modernity is not a problem. Others can’t overcome that flaw.

That applies to Empire The Musical as well. In its style, it is clearly a 1960s era musical. Lots of big dance numbers. A love story. But it is also conventional: the musical tends to be the standard musical-theatre style music, often with songs of place, not people. The story is filled with musical theatre conventions, stylistic characters, and tropes. Going in, you know where the story is likely to go. You get there, with perhaps one or two minor surprises on the end. But even those surprises aren’t surprises when you think about normal tricks in musicals. To put this another way: what has turned Broadway around have been the musicals that have challenged the conventional: skewering the style, bringing a new voice, bringing a new musical attitude, bringing voices to the previously voiceless. This musical does none of that. It is squarely conventional — and many squarely conventional musicals, while good, just haven’t become the long-lasting successes on Broadway. Where they have found their redemption — and perhaps their financial success — has been in the subsequent productions. For Empire, the latter would be problematic given the nature of the set and the technical demands.

In short: the structure of the story needs work — especially in Act I; even after those corrections, the style and feeling of the musical may make it only a moderate success. It doesn’t challenge the medium in the way that it should.

Although the story was flawed, I am happy to say that the execution was flawless. The performances were awesome. The technology and stage craft has to be seen to be believed. The costumes were spectacular. The music sounded great. The directorial vision brought this to where it was is remarkable.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the two leads: Kevin Earley (fan site, FB) as Michael Shaw, the architect, and Stephanie Gibson (FB) as the “Can Do” gal, Frankie Peterson. Earley (who must have a hidden picture on his website, because he doesn’t seem to age at all) has a wonderful voice and brings the right level of earnestness and youthful hope and hubris to the character. He also brings something that Kevin (the real person) has in real life: a remarkable charm and style. We’ve gotten to know Kevin through the shows he’s done in LA, and it is always a joy to see him on stage. Gibson is no slouch either: she also brings a wonderful style and attitude to her character, with strong dancing moves and a great voice. She’s just a delight watch on stage, especially in her Act II scenes. Together, the two have a nice chemistry and interaction.

(One additional note of interest regarding Frankie: If you watch closely, her “hideway” is down in the basement of the Waldorf Astoria. The original Waldorf Astoria was the building that was razed to build the ESB.)

Supporting the leads — and being saddled with the problem of having to tell the real story of the building with the grafted-on fictional story — are Tony Sheldon (FB) as John J. Raskob (the financier of the project), and Michael McCormick as Al Smith, the ex-Governor of New York. Although the performances are good, the characters themselves are stereotypes: the finance man, the heavy drinking politicians, the upper-crust.

There are a few other characters that fit somewhere between the main supporting characters and the variety of characters captured by the ensemble members:  Betty Raskob, the daughter of the financier [Charlotte Maltby (FB)]; Ethan O’Dowd, a construction worker, head of the riviting gang, and father to be [Caleb Shaw (FB)]; Abe Klayman, the foreman of construction workers [Joe Hart (FB)]; and Bucky Brandt, another construction worker [Tommy Bracco (FB)]. All of these are characters we get to know — but not too deeply. The only exceptions are Betty Raskob and Ethan O’Dowd. Both end up having some significant plot twists that are integral to the story. Both also carry out those plot twists well, and combine those performances with some wonderful smaller singing spotlights.

Rounding out the cast is the large ensemble (some also listed above), each of whom play multiple roles as dancers, workers, people in New York, reporters, etc. I’m not going to list all of the character names and positions, but let me list the people and the significant characters: Michael Baxter (FB) [Wolodsky, Ensemble, Dance Captain]; Tommy Bracco (FB) [Bucky, Ensemble]; Richard Bulda (FB) [Pomahac – Mohawk, Ensemble); Juan Caballer (FB) [Nikos, Ensemble]; Caitlyn Calfas (FB) [Hattie, Ensemble] ; Fatima El-Bashir (FB) [Florence, Ensemble]; Tory Freeth (FB) [Hazel, Ensemble]; Joe Hart (FB) [Abe Klayman, Ensemble]; Rachel King (FB) [Agnes, Ensemble]; Katharine McDonough (FB) [Emily O’Dowd; Ensemble]; Gabriel Navarro (FB) [Rudy – Mohawk; Ensemble]; Rachel Osting (FB) [Vera, Ensemble]; Jordan Richardson [Bill Johnson]; Caleb Shaw (FB) [Ethan O’Dowd, Ensemble]; Cooper Stanton (FB) [Menzo, Ensemble]; Michael Starr (FB) [Duryeavich, Ensemble]; Christine Tucker (FB) [Lois, Ensemble]; Rodrigo Varandas (FB) [Jesse – Mohawk, Ensemble]; Josh Walden (FB) [Pakulski, Ensemble]; and Justin Michael Wilcox (FB) [De Caprio, Ensemble].  All of the ensemble was a delight to watch during the large dance numbers, exhibiting strong movement. Most importantly, they seemed to be having fun with the show and with their characters. This is important, because the joy of performance becomes energy that is beamed out to the audience and fed back with enthusiasm.

This large cast was under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge (FB), who also served as choreographer. The directorial vision was strong here, especially in how the characters interacted with the set. The choreography was also fun to watch; Dodge was assisted on the choreography side by Michael Baxter (FB). Flying sequence choreography was by Paul Rubin (FB).

Sariva Goetz (FB) served as music director, and conducted the large and talented orchestra. Other orchestra members were: Brent Crayon  (FB) [Associate Conductor, Keyboard I]; Alby Potts (FB) [Keyboard II]; Jeff Driskill (FB) [Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet, Alto Sax]; Dave Hill/FB [Clarinet, Flute, Alto Sax, Soprano Sax]; Phil Feather (FB) [Oboe, English Horn, Clarinet, Tenor Sax]; Bob Carr [Bassoon, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Baritone Sax]; Michael Stever (FB) [Lead Trumpet, Piccolo Trumpet]; Don Clarke/FB [Trumpet, Flugel Horn]; Adam Bhatia (FB) [Trumpet, Flugel Horn]; Charlie Morillas (FB) [Trombone]; Toby Holmes [Bass Trombone, Tuba]; Mark Converse (FB) [Drums, Percussion]; and Tim Christensen [Acoustic / Electric Bass, Contractor]. Score Supervision was by Deborah Hurwitz (FB).  Orchestrations were by Michael Starobin (FB).

On the production and creative side: Much has been written about the scenic design of this show. More than any other show I have seen, this show was dependent on projections. The basic scenic design was a large silver flat with multiple levels and doors that could open, portions of which could slide forward to varying degrees. Projected onto this, from multiple directions so as not to create shadows, were the scenic backdrops and some props. Characters interacted with the scenery as if it was really there. This was a remarkable illusion — I’ve never seen projections used so effectively before. Credit on this goes to David Gallo (FB) [Scenic Designer, Co-Projection Designer] and Brad Peterson (FB) [Co-Projection Designer]. These were supported by the property design of Terry Hanrahan and the technical direction of David Cruise/FB.  I’m not sure this design could have been done even a few years ago — the creative use of computers and projects and graphic design makes this show possible, just as the elevator is what made the Empire State Building possible. The costume design of Leon Wiebers (FB) was also spectacular — especially the costumes for the ladies. Particular striking was the red outfit that Frankie wore in Act II. The costumes worked well with the Hair, Wig, and Makeup design of Rick Geyer. The lighting was by Jared A. Sayeg (FB) and was up to his usual excellent standards — which were made particularly complicated by having to work around the heavy use of projections, which can play havoc on lighting. Philip G. Allen (FB)’s sound design was strong and clear, although there were a few minor mic glitches. Remaining production credits:  David Elzer/Demand PR (FB) [Publicity]; Jill Gold (FB) (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Nicole Wessel/FB [Assistant Stage Manager]; Lily Twining (FB) [Production Manager]; Buck Mason (FB) [General Manager]; Julia Flores (FB) [Casting Director]. Empire – The Musical was produced by The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) and McCoy Rigby Entertainment (FB), Sue Vaccaro (FB), Ricky Stevens (FB), and The Rivet Gang.

Empire – The Musical continues at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB) until February 14, 2016. Tickets are available through the online box office; discount tickets are available on Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the  Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birides) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: February theatre continues this evening with “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). There’s a rare mid-week performance on February 9 of The Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). The following weekend brings the Southern California premiere of the musical Dogfight at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills.  The third weekend in February is currently open, but that is likely to change. February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner) The second weekend of March is open, thanks to the cancellation of “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.  The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix).  April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2. It will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.