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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Empire
La Mirada Theatre
Review by Sharon Perlmutter


Kevin Earley (far left), Stephanie Gibson (center) and Cast
Photo by Michael Lamont
Empire, in this world-premiere production at La Mirada Theatre, has a big, energetic cast, an old-school sensibility, Broadway aspirations, and a lot of work to do to get there. Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull have crafted a musical based on a fictionalized version of the planning and construction of the Empire State Building. Like other musicals based on historic events (Titanic leaps to mind as being the most similar), we already know how it's going to end. (Spoiler: It gets built.) In order to keep us engaged, then, the musical's creators have to draw us into the lives of the people involved.

The story focuses on two groups of people: those involved in dreaming up and planning the building and the lower class workers assigned the life-threatening task of building it. As for the former, the main storyline is the conflict, and eventual love story, between visionary architect Michael Shaw and pragmatic can-do gal-in-charge Frankie Peterson. It isn't in the mold of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl; instead, it's more of a boy-meets-girl, boy-clashes-with-girl-professionally, yet boy-and-girl-have-undeniable-chemistry type of thing. You pretty much know how this one is going to end when Frankie meets Michael and refuses to tell him her real first name, saying that fact is reserved for her future husband.

The second story, the one about the builders, quickly centers on Ethan O'Dowd, who enters the show asking the foreman for a safer, interior job, because he has to think of his family now that his wife is expecting. The foreman refuses, needing him on a dangerous rivet gang instead. By the time O'Dowd's wife gives birth and he's lying to her about the job he's taken, you can see his fate as clearly as if he just bought a third-class ticket on the Titanic.

And that is, really, the biggest problem with Empire. Sherman and Hull have tried to lovingly construct a brand-new old-fashioned musical, but, by sticking so clearly to the obvious formulas, they've unfortunately built something uninvolving.

It needn't be that way. Empire has the germ of something more interesting; it just needs help to grow. We do get to know one other worker, Bill Johnson. Johnson has a secret that you'll likely suspect the moment he asks for a job; it is nearly confirmed late in the first act and revealed early in the second. But if the play were to intentionally let us in on Johnson's secret (and bring his terrific song up into the first act, as explaining his motivation), we would be much more engaged with the character (and we would also care a lot more when both O'Dowd and Johnson are called to work up on the highest beams). This would solve another problem with the show, which is difficult to discuss without fully disclosing Johnson's secret—there is no real antagonist here (other than the Great Depression and the devastating potential of gravity). Taken to its logical conclusion, early revelation of Johnson's truth would enable the writers to actually create a villain.

The Michael/Frankie hate/love story needs even more of a fix than that, although the problem (our lack of connection to the characters) is similar. Frankie is, really, the show's lead, but the early "I Want" song goes to Michael. We don't get to know what drives Frankie, she doesn't have a solo ballad until more than an hour in, and we don't even see where she lives until the second act. If they scrapped Michael's "I Want" and replaced it with something for Frankie—something that would allow us to see that what this competent woman-in-a-man's-world really wants is a fair shake—we would be rooting for her from the start. On the other hand, Michael is the character who undergoes a transformation in the second act, but he has no song for it. The architect visits O'Dowd's wife about halfway through act two; after their scene, he leaves her apartment and watches from the street, while she has a song. This is a key moment for Michael. Watching Mrs. O'Dowd forces him to make a change—he should be the one singing here. Besides which, Michael is played by Kevin Earley—the man can sell the hell out of an 11 o'clock number and it's criminal not to give him one.

Earley is, in fact, underused. He really only comes into his own in a clever number late in the show in which Michael charms and maneuvers his way into a solution for everyone's problems. Until then, he's just around as a not-too-offensive foil for Frankie. Stephanie Gibson's Frankie is smart and savvy, and Gibson plays worldly well. Vocally, she seems to do better with the light comedy than her ballad, though, to be completely fair, Sherman and Hull give her much better lyrics in the former than the latter.

Despite all that needs fixing in Empire, it has a lot going for it and may well be worth the effort. There are eye-popping visuals, a huge tap ensemble hoofing its heart out, and some delightful numbers, including a rather spectacular one in which the laborers on the building try to outdo each other to impress the women walking below. Director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge pulls off some good theatrical moments, and projection designers David Gallo and Brad Peterson back it up with Broadway-caliber visuals. But Sherman and Hull need to revise their book and add a couple of great character-driven songs if they want Empire to have a life beyond La Mirada.

Empire runs at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through February 14, 2016. For tickets and information, see www.lamiradatheatre.com.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, Sue Vaccaro, Ricky Stevens, and The Rivet Gang present Empire the Musical. Book, Music & Lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull. Scenic/Co-Projection Design David Gallo; Costume Design Leon Wiebers; Lighting Design Jared A. Sayeg; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Co-Projection Design Brad Peterson; Properties Design Terry Hanrahan; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design Rick Geyer; Casting Director Julia Flores; General Manager Buck Mason; Production Manager Lily Twining; Publicist David Elzer/DEMAND PR; Assistant Stage Manager Nicole Wessel; Production Stage Manager Jill Gold; Vocal & Dance Arrangements Robert Hull; Orchestrations Michael Starobin; Flying Sequences Choreographed by Paul Rubin; Associate Choreographer Michael Baxter; Music Director Sariva Goetz. Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge.

Cast:
John J. Raskob: Tony Sheldon
Al Smith: Michael McCormick
Frankie Peterson: Stephanie Gibson
Michael Shaw: Kevin Earley
Betty Raskob: Charlotte Maltby
Eddie: Joe Hart
Paluski: Josh Walden
Menzo: Cooper Stanton
De Caprio: Justin Michael Wilcox
Ethan O'Dowd: Caleb Shaw
Bucky Brandt: Tommy Bracco
Wolodsky: Michael Baxter
Duryeavich: Michael Starr
Nikos: Juan Caballer
Abe Klayman: Joe Hart
Hattie: Caitlyn Calfas
Vera: Rachel Osting
Agnes: Rachel King
Florence: Fatima El-Bashir
Hazel: Tory Freeth
Lois: Christine Tucker
Kinney: Michael Starr
Howie: Michael Baxter
Pomahac: Richard Bulda
Bill Johnson: Jordan Richardson
Rudy: Gabriel Navarro
Jesse: Rodrigo Varandas
Emily O'Dowd: Katharine McDonough
Reporter #1: Michael Baxter
Reporter #2: Michael Starr
Heyday Recording Artist: Josh Walden
Big Man Beluga: Tommy Bracco
Empire Girls: Caitlyn Calfas, Rachel King, Rachel Osting, Christine Tucker, Fatima El-Bashir, Tory Freeth
Stork Club Maitre D': Joe Hart
Corny Vanderbilt, Jr.: Josh Walden
Mayor Jimmy Walker: Juan Caballer
Ensemble: Party People, Waiters, Downtrodden, Fifth AVenue Ladies, Nurse, Orderly, Commuters, Reporters, Politicians, Grand Central Employees, Society Patrons, etc.: Michael Baxter, Tommy Bracco, Richard Bulda, Juan Caballer, Caitlyn Calfas, Fatima El-Bashir, Tory Freeth, Joe Hart, Rachel King, Katharine McDonough, Gabriel Navarro, Rachel Osting, Caleb Shaw, Cooper Stanton, Michael Starr, Christine Tucker, Rodrigo Varandas, Josh Walden, Justin Michael Wilcox

Photo by Michael Lamont Caption: Kevin Earley (far left), Stephanie Gibson (center) and the workers




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