Sunday, January 30, 2011

Hoboken to Hollywood A Journey Through the Great American Songbook – Book by Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral & Jeremy Aldridge.

By Joe Straw

Harry James invited us into his dressing room to watch the Kentucky derby during his run of Big Broadcast of 1944 at the Pantages.  The television had a screen that was about as wide as my hand.  The coat hanger stuck into the broken antenna hole was providing an excellent snowy reception.

Gordon MacRae was there along with Fran Warren and Hildegard and other members of the cast.  All had extremely powerful voices and probably none had ever heard a pin drop in a quiet room in their entire lives.  

Harry was having a drink from a shot glass.  Gordon MacRae couldn’t keep quiet and the rest of the cast could have cared less about the horses running.

Squinting, because of the snow on the screen, and really having to concentrate because of the noise, the words from the Kentucky Derby announcer was lost that year to Harry James.

Harry sat quietly and stewed like a pot of minestrone.

One likes it when things go one’s way.

There is a place in Hoboken to Hollywood where Luca Ellis as the Crooner hits all the right moments as a singer and an actor.  It is an enlightened moment where one wants to stand and applaud and give him his just due.  And there, on stage, in that passionate moment, one can forever remember and be forever better for having seen it. More on that moment later.  

Hoboken to Hollywood takes one back to the beautiful days of black and white kinescope television complete with sixties style cameras, applause signs, and projected monitors on each side of the stage.  One can visit those days on YouTube and watch the washed out images of Frank Sinatra or go to The Edgemar Center Of The Arts and get a lively recreation of those early days of television, circa 1960’s.   The show has been extended to February 27, 2010.

The play, or the book, is about a taping of a television show featuring a superstar called The Crooner.  Hoboken to Hollywood is a historical visit to those days of the television variety show where, at that time, all moms across the nation were serving apple pie, every night, and life seemed to go according to schedule and without conflict.
But Hoboken To Hollywood lets one drop that fantasy and gives us a dose of reality.  Everything isn’t quite as rosy as it appeared on television.    

As the studio audience members, we are treated as cast members; we are shuffled to our seats.  One notices the cast and the musicians are improvising on stage.  (One likes it when actors are getting into the moment!) When all are seated the show starts with little fanfare.  We find out that Dwight (Al Bernstein) has been notified the directors’ wife is having a baby and it’s up to Andy (Pat Towne) to take the helm and direct this show along with his other duties.

Andy does this very reluctantly, because he’s only been assisting for about 14 years and doesn’t feel confident about this particular situation with this particular superstar.  High blood pressure aside, a superior fear of his authority scares the bejesus out of him.  Still he takes the job with the fear that if anything goes wrong, it may be the end of his career. And it’s just this kind of pressure, and angst, that fuels the fire in this production.  

And then everything goes wrong.

First, Andy does not know how to turn on the mike.  The Shimex Commercial Announcer (Chandler Hill) and the spokesgirl (Franci Montgomery) tries their hand at the commercial and that goes wrong.   The furniture is moved to the wrong position.  The 40 lbs bag falls and ruins a shot but fortunately misses the Crooner and Conductor.    The lights unexpectedly go off.

And ultimately it’s up to The Crooner to make things right because it’s his name on this project and everything has to be perfect!

This is a fine cast and crew.  An enormous amount of time and talent went into this production to pull it all together.

Bernstein as Dwight seems slightly out of place with hair and costumes for the time period but nevertheless puts his heart into the production.

Towne as Andy is a gifted physical actor.  He is everywhere doing what needs to be done, has a fine voice, and takes the stage with authority when the time comes.   What might be seen as forced reaction to The Crooners demands might work if his objective was inline with a stronger choice about his livelihood.

Montgomery as Darlene does a fine job.  There is a moment when she drops her ditzy blond routine to pull an outboard motor that was just marvelous. There is a slight confusion as to the relationship between her and The Crooner and is open to any interpretation one might have.  One believes it may serve the program to clear up any misconceptions of this relationship.

Hill as the announcer has a beautiful voice and works this job to perfection. 

Markgraf, as Nelson, is the master of the deadpan.  One would think he needs a little more action as he serves as conductor and friend.

Ellis, as The Crooner, is a wonderful actor/singer.  He is just powerful and able to command the stage and control a song with a strong passionate purpose.  He has his own style so one cannot call it an imitation. The fascinating thing about Ellis performance is his attention to detail. In the song, One For My Baby, he literally had the audience cradled in his arms.  It was this mixture of his voice, body movement, and the television visuals that one notices the details of his art.   It is stunning and a beautiful moment.    

And the shows historical visuals pay attention to the details of television.   One can get a glimpse of the evolution of television and notice when something may not work live, looks beautiful on television.  It is a glimpse of how even slightest moments and emotion are magnified and absorbed by the audience members and that is a very fine thing.

Paul Litteral, who plays trumpet, heads this 12-piece orchestra. The Saxes included Jim Jedeikin, Josh C. Harris, Colin Kupka, and Damon Zick. Craig Kupka and Robbie Hioki played the trombones.   Also on trumpet were Ron Sewer and Kendall Wallace.  On piano, Paul McDonald, bass, Nicholas Klingenberg, and drums, Steve Pemberton.

On top of a story one is getting fabulous songs with a top notched orchestra
Route 66, Bye, Bye, Blackbird, I Got The World on A String, Almost Like Being in Love, I’ve got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Call Me Irresponsible, Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, The Curse of an Aching Heart, Old Black Magic, That’s Life, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Love You, Shiny Stockings, Stardust, Blue Moon, Ciribirbin, There Are Such Things, Fly Me To The Moon, Green Onions, One For My Baby, I’m Gonna Live ‘Till I Die, Young at Heart, All of Me.

Heads were swaying and toes were tapping.  There’s even a sing-a-long that everyone joins in on.   All together, this was a lot of fun.

Luca Ellis, Paul Litteral and Jeremy Aldrige have written a wonderful book, it’s just that all the moments that don’t quite fit.  The show is still in its early stages but one hopes they find that excitement that propels it to the next level. This show could not secure the rights to a number of songs and may be reason the book may not lend itself to the songs.  Be that as it may, there is still a lot of material here to match to the appropriate song.

Jeremy Aldridge, the director, does a fine job but needs to throw out the stuff that doesn’t work and bring in the “love”.

There is still a maturation process needed before the show is taken back east and shown.  And while it is evolving, one needs to throw his two cents worth so here goes.  The Crooner needs (gasp) a wife.  He needs this as a foil, to show us that he is human, and to give us a reason for these fits of rage and depression on stage.   We could empathize with him all the more and could follow his reasons for his actions on stage. 

Also, The Crooner needs to be a man so in love with his wife that, on top of performing for the studio audience; he’s trying to save his marriage.  Love is a great equalizer.  It can raise a man to his highest heights and bring him down to his lowest low. 

A phone call or two from his wife would provide a reason for his actions and with the cast reaction we would know that she is a very demanding woman.   This would show us his human foibles and the reason for his anger. (Everyone can relate to a disgruntled spouse.)  The song to the beautiful young blond, Darlene, would have more meaning.  His anger about perfection would have more humph. And his man-to-man talk with Andy would provide more humor. 

Come Back to Me would be a great song to end the show.

I'm coming in late in the run of this musical play to witness and write about my observations.  And the crowds are still coming! The joint is still hopping!  And it’s still playing after how many months?  Wow!  This is a true testament to Peach Reasoner, the producer, and the power of equity waiver theatre.  And this is the right kind of fit for the Edgemar Center for the Arts. 

Run to this production and see the light.  It’s a light that alters a perception of a life and that is always a good thing.

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