A man in the front row beams as his colleagues serenade him with “Happy Birthday.” This is a special evening for him, and these work friends are celebrating at Westchester Broadway Theatre. That’s what this Equity dinner theater does best: create happy memories, while serving tasty food and presenting entertaining shows.
The current production, ‘S Wonderful, features the music of George and Ira Gershwin. It was first performed in 2010 at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, and the revue feel of the show is well suited to Westchester Broadway, where the audience is seated close to the stage. The performers also make exists and entrances through the house, which adds to the feeling of intimacy. Director Ray Roderick has wisely played up the cabaret aspect.
This is a great time for the music of the Gershwin Brothers. In addition to The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, currently on Broadway, in April “Nice Work If You Can Get It” will be on the Great White Way, too. This both enhances the experience of ‘S Wonderful, and detracts from it. It’s tough to hear the Porgy and Bess numbers with memories of the Broadway cast echoing. And can anyone really experience the An American In Paris ballet without thinking of Kelly and Caron?
The cast meets these challenges with exuberance, and clearly, they win over the house.`S Wonderful is written in a set of five musical vignettes, each focusing on a different character. How well the songs blend into the story varies. The best fit is the scene set in the New York of 1928. Nice Work If You Can Get It makes perfect sense as a young man at the bottom of the pecking order at a newspaper tries to work his way up to star investigative reporter. Blakely Slaybaugh is cut from the same cloth as Lewis J. Stadlen; I especially enjoyed his agility, and his slapsticks timing.
Mary Millben has the unenviable task of singing the Porgy and Bess numbers. She can belt with the best of them, and as Nina, makes New Orleans in 1957 really sizzle. I’d also kill for the spangled dress she wears so well. The audience cheers after every song she sings.
Sean Watkins is just a right as Gene, an American sailor in Paris in 1939. Done up in his whites, and eager for romance, he sings well and dances effortlessly. We know from the moment he steps on stage that he’s going to get the girl.
Quite naturally, the girl Gene woos in the Parisian café is named Leslie. In a fine ensemble, Deidre Haren really stands out. She has a fresh, sparkling quality and an excellent voice; I can give no higher praise than to say she reminds me of a young Sutton Foster.
Stacy Harris plays several roles, including Jane, a lovesick makeup artist in 1948 Hollywood. Throughout the production, her energy and her comic ability light up the stage. She instantly gains the empathy of the audience, a rare talent that’s a prerequisite for any budding star.
The orchestra on stage brings an extra punch to the evening, which promises an energetic, appealing cast and of course, some really great music.
‘S Wonderful, through March 25, 2012
Westchester Broadway Theatre
One Broadway Plaza
Elmsford, New York 10523
Box Office: 914-592-2268
Photo Credit: John Vecchiolla
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.