“Johnny Manhattan”, Meadow Brook Theatre at Oakland University, Rochester Hills MI
Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (Member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Sean Carter Photography
Broadway-Bound “Johnny Manhattan” Takes the Stage
To kick off its 52nd season, Meadow Brook Theatre, Oakland County’s leading professional venue for the performing arts located on the campus of Oakland University, presents not only a world premiere but a Broadway preview. “Johnny Manhattan”, with aspirations of hitting the Great White Way and sporting a mostly Equity cast, is a shiny-new musical comedy with true-to-life dramatic undercurrents.
For fans of Broadway musicals, “Johnny Manhattan” might look somewhat familiar: A gathering of old showbiz friends and enemies for one last toast to a soon-to-be closed stage; a look at years past through the proverbial rose-colored glasses; the brassy glow of nostalgia tarnished with regret; conflicts (and scenery) chewed on like wounds that never heal; a setting that provides the perfect excuse for music inspired by classical jazz and show tunes, and peppered with snappy dance numbers.
The story revolves around a late-1950s farewell bash hosted by nightclub owner Johnny, who is closing his place for good. Reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” in some ways, “Johnny Manhattan” holds some surprises tucked in between its catty chorines, little intrigues and urban sophisticates swilling champagne. You may even see a gigolo in a purple suit.
With book and lyrics by the late Robert Lorick, and music by Michigan native Dan Goggin (both Off-Broadway veterans), “Manhattan” follows the standard stage musical formula of three romantic couples engaged in song and dance. The show’s concept was first drafted by Lorick and Goggin in 1975 and presented as a free showcase in New York City for 15 performances.
Jim Ballard, in the title role of nightclub owner Johnny, presents the requisite suave exterior with a fine voice and moves. There’s a restless dissatisfaction simmering just below that smooth and charming surface. The reason for his unease is a little unclear, despite numbers like “New York is Driving Me Crazy”. Anne Brummel as his piano-perching love interest Rosie has a lovely, Broadway-belter’s voice and stage presence. Intentional or not, she and Johnny seem emotionally distant in their scenes together.
The four ladies of the chorus are excellent, possessing razor-sharp dance moves and comic timing perfect for flinging those zingers. Ruth Pferdehirt as Maxie is a standout – her tour-de-force “Mister Producer” is worth the price of admission, a real show-stopper. Lauren Sprague as Lorraine, Alissabeth Morton as Gloria, and Janet Caine as Francine really shine in everything they do, most notably in the gorgeously staged and delivered “Morning Man” – filled with jazzy melancholy and haunting sensuality.
Jana Robbins, from the original showcase cast, gives a funny and sensitive performance as Johnny’s aging actress friend Rita, clinging to memories and afraid to face what the future holds for her. Despite these seeming vulnerabilities, she comes to the party well-armed with a bombshell of a secret that turns out to be the key that unlocks a very important door.
Other key members of the cast offer strong characterizations: Tyrick Wiltez Jones as Gary, barkeep and Johnny’s pal; George Dvorsky as Lorraine’s married love interest; Barbara McCulloh as his long-suffering wife Dorothy; Scott Willis as Edward, Rita’s old flame; and Nathan Cockroft as her purple-suited would-be paramour Mickey.
New-York based director and choreographer Mark Martino’s brisk pacing and flawless staging lend a glossy polish to the proceedings. There are a few truly stunning musical numbers that simply must not be missed. Martino skillfully guides the cast through the story’s emotional landmines, although some extra bits of stagecraft, or perhaps sound effects, could help bring some of the aging characters’ memories to life.
Musical conductor Michael Price, seated at his piano upstage center, couldn’t be better and helps create the cozy atmosphere of an intimate Manhattan club. He presides over a small band (Eric Alsford, Don Platter, Nick Matthews) just behind the curtain beside him, all top-notch musicians.
The performances, direction, costumes, music and dance numbers are superb. The premise seems a bit dated, however, and spends much of its time looking back while the champagne flows. The story arc starts off a bit muddled and choppy, with an uneven build of tension. While this does nothing to hinder the visual enjoyment of watching the show, it does make the characters’ motivations a bit confusing. But everything comes into better focus in the second act, revealing the show’s true potential.
With wonderful performances wrapped in a glamourous package, “Johnny Manhattan” makes for a fun, lively and entertaining evening, lending a little pre-Broadway dazzle to the stage at Meadow Brook.
Meadow Brook Theatre’s season is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, the Fred and Barbara Erb Family Foundation, the Shubert Foundation and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.
When: Now through September 24, 2017
8:00 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
6:30 p.m. Sundays
2:00 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays & Sundays
Tickets $28 to $43
Where: Meadow Brook Theatre at Wilson Hall
378 Meadow Brook Rd
Rochester Hills, MI 48309