By Daniel Skora
You just know that when the stage lights are glistening in early September, there has to be something special going on at Meadow Brook Theatre. Meadow Brook is currently presenting “Johnny Manhattan”, a new musical by Robert Lorick (book and lyrics) and Dan Goggin (music). The show is not only a World Premier but a Broadway preview as well.
The time is 1958, the golden era of nightclubbing in New York City, and Johnny Manhattan’s is the place to be. Celebrities, socialites, and show-biz notables pack the place every night to see and be seen, and the heady mix of alcohol, cigarette smoke, music and gossip make for a tantalizing evening of fun and frolic for the patrons. And this night of all nights might prove to be an evening to remember because Johnny (Jim Ballard) has invited a select group of friends and club regulars for what he promises will be a special announcement.
Present are his longtime friend David (George Dvorsky) and his wife Dorothy (Barbara McCulloh). Rita (Jana Robbins) is a former actress who never quite made it big in the movies and has now been reduced to showing up with Mickey (Nathan Cockroft), a male escort. Things may change though because Edward (Scott Willis), an old flame, is also in attendance. But perhaps the most special guest of all is Rosie (Anne Brummel), Johnny’s old girlfriend and quite possibly the love of his life.
What transpires over the course of the show’s two hour running time is an attempt by those who have gathered at the club to reconcile old times and old loves with their current lot in life. The storyline is accompanied by over a score of catchy tunes with titles like “Oh, Those Johnnies”, “For Old Times’ Sake”, and “New York’s Driving Me Crazy” that compliment the plot and contribute to the nightclub atmosphere.
For its premiere outing, “Johnny Manhattan” has been done up well. The show has great talent, marvelous costuming (design by Liz Goodall), and a set that reflects the glamour and intimacy of the best that New York clubs could offer in the 1950’s (design by Brian Kessler). The crown jewel of the show is a number done by Ruth Pferdehirt in her role as the showgirl Maxie. Maxie’s been sent out on the road so many times “to get experience” that she’s become frustrated as she sings and dances her way through her every year of her exile. “Mister Producer” is one dynamite number that can make an actress a star and as performed by Ms. Pferdehirt is by itself worth the price of admission.
To its credit, “Johnny Manhattan” has the look and the feel of a 1958 nightclub. Unfortunately, the musical itself has that same dated feel to it. There isn’t anything fresh or new or 2017ish about it. The characters are by-and-large stock and it takes well into the second act for a mid-westerner to be able to cozy up to characters who’ve had more than their fair share of glitz, glamour and money and still find reason to complain. The plot is mostly predictable and the score hasn’t a single song that holds promise of rising above the musical.
Others in the show’s cast include Gary, the bartender (Tyrick Wiltez Jones, who also serves as dance captain); the showgirls: Francine (Janet Caine), Gloria (Alissabeth Morton), and Lorraine (Lauren Sprague); and the waiters: George (Ian Turnwald) and Paul (Dale White).
“Johnny Manhattan” is directed and choreographed by Mark Martino. Musical director, arranger, and conductor is Michael Rice. Lighting is by Matthew J. Fick and sound by Michael Duncan. Stage manager for the production is Terry W. Carpenter with assistance by Sarah Lin Warren.
“Johnny Manhattan” runs through September 24th. Tickets are available by calling the Meadow Brook box office at 1.248.377.3300 or going online at www.ticketmaster.com. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in the city of Rochester.