“Fortune favors the bold” we’re often told, but when the roaring 20’s collapsed into the reeling 1930’s, commencing with the infamous stock-market crash of 1929, America was immediately plunged into a financial morass such as it had never endured previously. Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in New York City, the “Big Apple”— whose shimmer was seriously diminished as former Brokers and Businessmen actually took to selling apples on street corners just to survive. What was needed was an endeavor so momentous that it could lift the people‘s spirits up off the ground–up 102 stories–until they veritably scraped the sky! Such a venture was the iconic “Empire State Building”! Now, “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada, California, and the multiple-Award-winning McCoy-Rigby Entertainment has joined forces with Sue Vaccaro, Ricky Stevens and “The Rivet Gang” for The pre-Broadway engagement of “Empire”, a brand-new original musical about those who bravely embodied the American spirit during the darkest days of the Great Depression, building what was then the tallest structure in the world—which it would remain for decades to come!
“There’s a kind of magic in an opening night for the ‘World Premiere’ of a show that’s bound for Broadway…” Producer Tom McCoy reminded eager ‘First-Nighters’ for this spectacular new musical they were about to see—and he’s entirely right! Billed as a celebration of the American spirit, “Empire” features plenty of big, buoyant dance numbers, lively melodies, and captivating—even visionary special effects. Opening in 1929, a huge banner proclaims “Coming Soon: ‘The Al Smith’ Building” as a party celebrating the planned project is in full Jazz-Age style swing as we’re introduced to the man in question “Al Smith” himself (“Keep the Mayor’s ‘tea-cup’ filled with this boot-leg Bubbly!” he instructs a nearby waiter.) Smith, along with his business partner, Financier “John Jakob Raskob” have the idea to build a new skyscraper to rival even the recently constructed “Chrysler Building”, and they’ve picked just the man to design it for them: a sensitive, fresh-faced Ivy-league graduate named “Michael Shaw” (“I don’t want a job,” he enthuses idealistically “I want a Dream!”) Then again, both Smith and Raskob are ‘men of the world’ and if they’re going to entrust such a gigantic (to say the least) to a relative newcomer, they want to be sure he’s kept an eye on. Enter Miss “Frankie Peterson”—Al’s right-hand woman who’s so determined to make it in a man’s world that she goes solely by her middle name, swearing only to tell her first to her future husband—whoever he may be (“My middle name is after Benjamin Franklin” she informs Michael, going on to quip she was so named because her dad liked kites!) The team in place, they’re ready for action, and despite not having Mayor Jimmie Walker’s crucial authorization, they’re hiring a team of workers to actually build the proposed building—among them several Native Americans and many immigrants. Eventually they do get that approval, but at a cost: they absolutely MUST have it completed in 16 months (—a record even for today) which meant striving against all odds to build a story a day! By the close of the first act, they officially change the name of the structure to “The Empire State Building” (further advising us that the state motto of New York is “Excelsior” which, very fittingly, means “Onward and Upward”,) and as the curtain falls…well, let’s just say you’ll be very eager to see what happens after intermission. The second act is filled with numerous twists and turns—and way too many surprises to give away, but one thing is certain: they will always keep you guessing and eager to see what’s coming next.
Featuring a Book, Music & Lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull, at its best, the show hearkens back to the brightest and most loved of those classic “Golden Age” musicals of the ’30 and ’40s. Sherman and Hull’s songs recall (and are certainly worthy of) the finest from such ground-breaking “Tin-pan Alley” tune-smiths as Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart and The Gershwins. In fact, so fully immersive have they managed to touch the feel of the period, it’s not hard to imagine this story (aside from a few slightly anachronistic 21st century sensibilities here and there) directed by Frank Capra and starring the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge who keeps her direction fast-paced and always fascinating, she vividly recounts the times and the city being portrayed, slowing the action just enough at intervals to give the softer more poignant numbers their full due, while enlivening the pace for those larger on-stage extravaganzas that warrant it. Yet as spot-on as her direction is, Ms. Dodge’s vivacious choreography is even more so. “Hey Day” is a rousing tap number celebrating all the joy and excesses that made the 20’s roar. Almost immediately into its built-in encore however, this merry mood is shattered when word of the stock-market crash is resoundingly heard, prompting the ensemble of glitzy tuxedo-clad and satin shift-dress garbed dancers to swiftly change into working-class rags and trudge off into the wings to a new, more dour and depressive cadence, fundamentally signaling the conspicuous and comprehensive change in national attitude the 1930’s were to bring. Later, she even sets a number a top the frame of this ¼ mile high masterpiece-to-be! Titled “Lunch Time”—a “Gee Officer, Krupke-esque” group number sung by a chorus of rough-neck builders (in which we’re humorously reminded of the reputation New York City construction workers have enjoyed for decades—and why–) the result is athletic, acrobatic and impressive, featuring them literally jumping through hoops to catch the eyes of the pretty girls who pass by the site. Ms. Dodge also shrewdly and appropriately incorporates steps from many genres and cultures of dance in homage to the multi-ethnic workforce that took the risks and did the work to make this modern marvel a reality (–and very deservedly, on opening night it practically stopped the show!) There’s even a rowdy conga-line to liven things up late in the second act, and the finale, which takes place on the viewing platform at the top of the newly constructed über high-rise tenders the kind of unabashed ebullience for which Broadway is renowned!
As “Frankie Peterson”, Stephanie Gibson is a feisty, fiery and funny mix of Rosalind Russell and Jean Arthur with a dash of Gwen Verdon thrown in–and her stylish interpretation here hearkens back to all those tough, wise-cracking dames of the silver-screen who not only weren’t afraid to mix it up with the big boys—more often than not, they’d win! “The city needs this building” she tells reporters; “they need to see the impossible is possible!” Gibson also has a magnificent and affecting voice that she puts to excellent use with her dynamic solo “Dare To Dream”, during which we learn what a dreamer—and how much of a romantic—our heroine really is. it’s definitely worth waiting for! Nonetheless, she doesn’t just astound us with luxurious vocal phrases and long sumptuous notes–she also demonstrates a talent for a snappy-patter song too, as in “Never Say Never’ as Frankie really proves the best (and most expeditious) man for the job of getting all the raw-materials, permits and requisitions required is indeed a woman! This is also where at last, Ms. Gibson finally gets to demonstrate how her voice is—and as it builds into a sultry dance interlude, she also displays her finesse with Ms. Dodge’s choreography as well. An equally formidable performance is furnished by Kevin Earley, who shares the stage with her as “Michael Shaw”—the ‘preppie’ young Architect of the building in question. Earley’s opening salvo, “Man Of Destiny” proves right away he’s a powerful talent with a equitably potent voice to match, and he gives this number just the solid (and inspiring) treatment it calls for while leaving us all the more impressed for it. (“Men of destiny always reach for the top” he sings.) Subsequently, he does an outstanding job in the second act, leading the group effort “Do What We Need To Do”, and along with Gibson, their duet, “In A Good Way” (wherein they ‘lament’ being ‘stuck with’ each other) is a top-notch pairing showcasing both wonderfully—he’s a robust tenor and she’s got a magnetic ‘belt’ that reaches to the back of the theater!
Michael McCormick is also a genuine stage presence to be reckoned with as New York’s ex-Governor and Presidential candidate, “Al Smith”. “When it rains, I pour” he says, in one of many top-notch examples of exactly how sharp and clever Sherman and Hull’s libretto is (–he also has one of the very best sight gags in the entire show—or several others for that matter!) Likewise, Tony Sheldon matches him note for note and laugh by laugh as his partner in this monumental enterprise, John J. Raskob. Throughout, they inject the proceeding with a terrific jolt of good old-fashioned ‘razzmatazz” and plenty of vaudeville-tinged levity in the mode of brilliant comedy teams like “Weber and Fields”. One of several first-rate duets McCormick and Sheldon share is “Moxie”. A delightful (and delightfully shameless) ode to themselves and all the other era-defining “Robber-Barons” who called themselves “Captains Of Industry”, they harmonize “We’re a lot of ego and a little clever.” Sure it’s a tall order, but this pair have “moxie and a melting pot of ‘can-do!’” After all, these were men who, they tell us, “kept inspiring the people of this country, and kept reaching for the top!” (–being sure that their pockets were well-lined along the way, of course!)
Carrying the poignant sub-plot are Caleb Shaw as Irish Laborer “Ethan O’Dowd” and Katherine McDonough as his wife “Emily”. Now that Ethan’s a family man with concerns beyond himself, Emily doesn’t want him taking any unnecessary risks; on the other hand, because he is a family man with responsibilities, he wants to do what’s necessary to provide for his growing family—even if it means putting himself up on girders 100 stories high. The couple’s tender lullaby, “Castles In The Air”–sung on the occasion of their firstborn’s arrival, really has stand-out “hit” potential, and Shaw and McDonough both hit a theatrical home-run bringing it to life. Meanwhile, Charlotte Maltby is similarly in fine voice and shows off some prodigious moves of her own as “Betty Raskob”—John J.’s socialite daughter with a secret that compels her curiosity to witness the building’s construction first-hand. Her benediction “Touch The Sky” is a powerfully delivered anthem to women (or anybody) ahead of their time when society at large may not have always been so understanding of those who wanted to “reach up and touch the sky.” Also, Joe Hart as the Maitre’D of “The Stork Club” makes his hilarious mark during his all-too-brief moments before the footlights!
Not to be overlooked either, are the breath-taking state-of-the-art design and technical elements which “Empire” boasts, courtesy of David Gallo, Brad Peterson, and lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg. Utilizing technologies that project vintage black and white photographs and interactive animation little used before (and never so effectively,) these lend the production a dynamic ‘cinematic’ quality. They also allow scenes to change in a flash just by changing the background photo. Gradually, as Act Two progresses, more color is added to the black and white backgrounds signaling the building nearing completion. In addition, this technique makes possible several truly stunning effects such as a ride on an elevator at the historic “Waldorf Astoria” hotel that will positively drop your jaw, or an entire number set up on the building’s still skeletal-frame!
The sky really is the limit for this ‘riveting’ new theatrical experience! After “Previewing” on Friday, January 22, 2016, “Empire’ was “official” unveiled on Saturday, January 23, and will play through Sunday, February 14th, 2016. Show-times are Wednesday & Thursday evenings at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at both 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm. Tickets may be obtained by calling (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or on-line by visiting www.lamiradatheatre.com (Special Student, Senior, Child and Group discounts are also available.) On opening night, audiences couldn’t get to their feet fast enough to offer up a thunderous and much merited ovation; happily for anyone in the So Cal area, now’s the time to put yourself into an “Empire” state of mind and catch it before it rises to claim it’s place on ‘The Great White Way’!
Production Stills By Michael Lamont, Courtesy Of David Elzer At Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) McCoy-Rigby Entertainment And “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”; Special Thanks To David Elzer, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Marcia Milgrom Dodge And To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s World Premiere Production Of “Empire” For Making This Story Possible.