Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The old saw has it that directing is 99% casting. But if that were true, every hard-headed producer in the world would just cut the director's pay by 99%, right?
Well, co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have assembled an amazing cast to add polish and luster to Tom Jones' and Harvey Schmidt's 1969 musical (with lovely music direction by Kyle Aucoin). But they've also resurrected the forgotten style of a more beautiful time in this delightful piece. Aging hippies take note, your heart will find a home in Celebration.
Part fable, part love triangle, and part 1960s hippie/Brechtian/Fantasticks-style love-in, this seldom-seen show succeeds brilliantly thanks to its post-Vietnam urgency, its post-Civil Rights egalitarianism, and perhaps even a soupçon of pre-Watergate naivetéalong with excellent leads and the sheer wit and exuberance of the whole ensemble.
Mr. Jones and Mr. Schmidt wrote The Fantasticks, which ran Off-Broadway for literally 42 years (and is still running, after restarting in 2006), debuting in 1960. Nine years after that premiere, at the end of a tumultuous decade of change, this Celebration has a lot of the same avuncular humor, with all the panache of both Kent Coffel (as Potemkin) and Zachary Allen Farmer (as William Rosebud Rich, beneath a big Trumpian pompadour). I don't know how they do it, but each man finds the exact combination of dry wit, deep irony, and even pratfall comedy to hit a perfect bullseye every single time.
Larissa White, too, is a lot of fun as a sexy young actress hired to perform in a New Year's Eve show, with a chorus of "go-to-hell" go-go dancers in one big number. The whole thing is loosely based on seasonal Scandinavian folk tales, but don't get hung up on that, man: it's just a charming, weightless framework for the story. And Ms. White re-creates the blonde-bombshell thing anew with a girlish yet resigned attitude toward the whole affair. And very sparkly pasties, which I only mention out of respect for the excellent costumer Sarah Porter, lest she toil in vain.
Which is not to say that Sean Michael is any slouch as the Orphan, the fourth (but technically first) lead. He lends an unassailably child-like innocence and even a dash of magic that the show must have to prop up the rest of these world-weary (but undeniably charming) sons of bitches. Celebration is set in motion by his quest, after a land-grabbing scheme of Mr. Rich's. And, armed with only a mysterious seed, the Orphan slowly transforms the world. He's only upstaged a bit, by that fabulous pairand by that I mean Messrs. Coffel and Farmer, of course.
There's no one "hit-single" from this Schmidt and Jones collaboration (like Ed Ames' "Try To Remember" from The Fantasticks), but this is an entirely strong, lovely score that maintains its spell throughout.
The ending is surprisingly abrupt, but does succeed in popping the bubble, proving the evanescence of any youthful counter-cultural experience. "Oh, wait, that was 43 years ago, when we all felt like we could stop an awful war, or start the whole environmental movement, with just some concerted idealism like that," you might say, as you walk back to your car, on the fringe of the Grand Center arts district, two or three blocks east of Powell Hall in these best and worst of times.
So that's your "try to remember" moment right there, I suppose. And it's still a beautiful thing.
Through October 22, 2016 at the Marcel Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive. For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.org.
The New Line Band
The Artistic Staff