Presto Change-O, book and lyrics by Eric Price, Music by Joel Waggoner. Directed by Marc Bruni. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Michael Rupert, Barbara Walsh, Lenny Wolpe, Jarrod Spector, Bob Walton, Jenni Barber; photo: Scott Barrow
"There is magic. . .somewhere."
Michael Rupert, Lenny Wolpe, Jarrod Spector; photo: Scott Barrow
At the top of the second act there ismagic. It is not a unique occurrence in this world premiere musical, Presto Change-O, commissioned by, and produced by, Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It is not so special that you "oooh" or "aaaah" about it, but it is a special moment in a show that offers many wonders while still clinging to the theatrical gimmick - grown old - of the disfunctional family moving toward a new understanding of one another's strengths and weaknesses. With a decently constructed book and respectable lyrics by Eric Price and some stirring though not easily memorable music by Joel Waggoner, this show has a great deal to offer but with so much good in the work it is still, by and large, a weak theatrical event.
There is nothing wrong with this musical that time and thought cannot correct. The second act is brilliant. The first act is flawed and needs work so when you go to see it just sit back and enjoy the first hour without giving much thought to what you see and hear, but pay close attention to every inventive and clever second of the last half of the show. Right now, that is where the greatest value can be found.
I hate to give away the plot of any new theatrical piece, but here is what I am willing to tell you: three magicians and illusionists - a father (Michael Rupert), his father-in-law (Lenny Wolpe), and his young son (Jarrod Spector), all compete for a top spot in their profession and each has his flaws and difficulties to overcome. All of them are aided by a young woman (Jenni Barber) who wants her own spot in the Klieg-light of fame. Each encounters the negativity of the ex-wife, devoted daughter, mother who accompanies them on their internal journeys (she is one woman [Barbara Walsh] strained to the limit by the men in her life).
But there is magic in the second act, as I said. Personal stories are moulded into a cohesive plot for a while and the concern is professional rather than personal and the tale becomes a universal story which is a wonderful change-up. The people become so real you can empathize with them. Whether this is the actors' work, the director's vision, or the authors' intent really doesn't matter. Somehow in the second act they care, so we care, and the show moves into the realm of a classic. Throughout the musical it is a show-biz story that carries the action, but it becomes a much more honest story of devotion, sometimes misplaced, that moves us and lets us love what we see and hear.
Barbara Walsh as the daughter, ex-wife and mother who carries the double burden of angst and constant anger dominates the show. She makes Mary fascinating. She lets her character grab the story and let it go again transformed. Singing the title song in Act Two she is both moving and magical. This follows another song in which her wonder at her father's magical realism turns the tide of the plot and brings along the psychological hocus-pocus the others offer. It is Mary's transitions, so poignantly played by Walsh, that opens the characters to the audience's senstivities.
In the first act Jenni Barber as Tina threatens to take center stage with her song "Ta-Da!" which is written with an exclamation point that isn't always heard in her rendition, but when she catches its importance and lets it through, the song and her performance become mesmerizing. It's a terrific song and she ultimately delivers nicely in it. Just before this song in Act One is a family number, "One Hand to the Next" which goes on too long but says a lot and if this show was a through-composed one the song would make much more sense.
I am happy that this is a more traditional musical with book scenes and songs, but the almost operetta approach to some of the numbers allows them to grow a bit tiresome in spite of dynamite performances. We just need a break out there in the dark. Sometimes relentless singing takes away from the drama and the comedy of a moment.
Jarrod Spector is excellent as the son, Michael Presto, especially in his duet with Barber in Act Two, "If I Were Magic," which is as close to a ballad as you will get in this show. He brings a wonderful honest quality to the role and the play is better for it. Bob Walton is fine as Uncle Arthur turning in a performance that does exactly what the play and plot need when they need it.
Michael Rupert as Lance Presto gives a perfectly realized rendition of a father who does not recognize his own errors in child-rearing. Rupert in black, or Rupert in red leather presents with a flair that is appropriate for his character. It is easy to see the charmer who captured as his wife the daughter of a much more successful career magician. It is just as easy to hear the voice of a man who cannot sustain an honest relationship. Rupert's physical creation is just what the authors seem to have created, but he is not always the man we hope for as the leading character in a musical.
Barbara Walsh; photo: Scott Barrow
The Company; photo: Scott Barrow
Lenny Wolpe as the senior male in the family nearly steals the show from top to bottom. He is funny, tear-jerking, magical - all of them in the right proportions and the right ways. His character, Sheldon, is sometimes the hardest to understand but he is a man of confusions, illusions and even delusions. He sees in himself a much more important and successful man than he really is and he deals with this in the only way he knows how to make do: magic tricks and illusions.
That, in fact, is the basic premise and problem with the show - using tricks and illusions to mask feelings and understanding. We get the idea early on and want the show to move us more quickly to the realizations that do finally arrive in the second act. The show itself makes us impatient as some of the "songs" (there are eightteen of them) become semi-operatic, sung-through scenes. There are odd vocal riffs and roulades as the melodies invoke a different physical type from the show's casting choices. There are words too simple stating over and over the same thoughts without much variation. The choices here should be looked at carefully. Both pruning and focusing needs to be applied to the script - there's that first act again, a curious jumble of motives and actions.
Derek McLane's set is wonderful and Ken Billington's lighting is among his finest work. Brad Berridge does well with his sound design work, though Alejo Vietti could probably do better with the costumes. They work but they get dull and old fast. Vadim Feichtner leads his five-person music ensemble perfectly and the multitude of illusions designed by Joseph Wartnerchaney are brilliant and workable and a joy to watch as the story unfolds.
Marc Bruni's direction is clean and crisp and works exceptionally well. He shines throughout, but in the second act he moves the story along gracefully, allowing each actor to take a moment and shine with it and its newness. There was never a moment that felt forced or untruthful or anything but magically realistic. Even the finale, although it follows a false ending which could be a solved staging problem with music or lights or perhaps a more magical contrivance, reminiscent of a terrific concept in the film 'There's No Business Like Show Business,' takes the show in many unanticipated directions.
I think this new work has the potential to be a thoroughly enjoyable show business story from beginning to end. It needs to play to audiences and it needs time to adjust itself and its flaws into a better way to tell the story of the first act. I look forward to getting a second look at this show, if not here than somewhere else, and seeing how it grows for I do believe it could be a great show, just not with the current first act. My standards aren't necessarily high enough, but this time around I find that the show is a difficult one and not ready. This is a slightly harsh appraisal but the second act is so very good that I really just want a first act that plays to its level. Keep working guys! You could have a hot hit on your hands.
Presto Change-O plays on the St. Germain stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center at 36 Linden Street in Pittsfield, MA through June 11. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.