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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Empire: The Musical
A financier, an ex-governor, an architect and a right hand gal with a man's name sing out their vision for an impossible bit of construction: a skyskraper in the middle of New York City that they envision will become the world's tallest building. To pull off such a feat, according to the singers, you'll need "moxie and a melting pot of can-do."
Of course you will. And just in case its title calls up associations of warlords, redrawn maps and slaughtered armies, know that the new musical Empire by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull does in fact concern a building. Taking the basic facts surrounding the creation of the Empire State Building, Sherman and Hull have mixed in some fictional characters and circumstances, a score very much in the style of its period, and a whole lotta moxie and can-do.
The finished product, which reportedly has Broadway in its sites, is a cheerful bit of pop and fizz. Every bit a throwback to the musicals of the Gershwins or Irving Berlin in tone and temperament, Empire possesses not a single note of irony, cynicism or introspection. It's an old-fashioned good time, and a formulaic one at that.
Characters who should fall in love, will. A person will die, and if you can't identify the doomed individual five minutes after said character's introduction, allow me to sell you naming rights to a certain 1,250 ft. structure. Under the sprightly direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge, and with charismatic acting and some nifty stagecraft by set designer David Gallo, plot clunkiness is easily overlooked. You want moxie? Empire dreams big and largely delivers.
Our tale begins in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1929 where a bunch of swellegant gents and ladies are dancing the night away to a song called "Heyday." It's here where former General Motors honcho and billionaire John J. Raskob (played by Tony Sheldon) hobnobs with popular ex-governor Al Smith (Michael McCormick) to meet the man who will bring their mutual vision to fruition, an Ivy league educated architect named Michael Shaw (Kevin Earley). Shaw also meets Smith's "Can do Gal" Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson) who will supervise all the nuts and bolts of the project, but will never get the credit she's due because, well, she's a dame working in a man's business. Shaw and Frankie are rivals and they don't like each other. Very quickly the 20s roar to an end, the Stock Market goes kerflooey and the Great Depression kicks in, but the race to out-ascend the Chrysler Building carries on.
Is it safe to send construction workers hundreds of feet up into the heavens to move girders around and toss rivets? Not very, and protestors come out to register their objections. But there's no halting progress and under the protective gaze of foreman Abe Klayman (Joe Hart, his voice full of sand and marbles), immigrant laborers and Mohawk Skywalkers partner up to get the thing built. Dodge stages some of the friskiest ensemble numbers high in the sky including "Lunch Time," a clever riff on the antics of catcalling hard hats: "Hey pretty girl, take a look at me!"
Shaw and Frankie have some push-pull, hate-into-love action going on, into which Earley and Gibson try to channel some Hepburn and Tracy-esque magic. His voice not quite as mighty as during his earlier L.A. musical theater appearances, Broadway vet Earley still packs a strong baritone. And he cuts a dashing figure walking the streets of New York and singing "Man of Destiny" as the black and white cityscape of Gallo and Peterson's projections fall away behind him.
Gibson's leading lady appeal is considerable. In her hands, Frankie is aggressive without being too brassy, an organizer and a leader of the boys. Nostalgic though their story is, the playwrights don't humble their progressive dreamer of a heroine. When Raskob and Smith end up begging for her help, Gibson gets to gloat and she gets a hot number (although the red sequined dress she's wearing is a bit much).
As up to snuff as the leads and ensemble are, Gallo's scenery is very much the star attraction here. Never overreaching, he takes us all over the city, from tenements to swanky restaurants, from railway cars on abandoned tracks to observation decks. The sky-high scenes are accomplished with pulleys, with thrust out multi-level platforms and with some flying sequences choreographed by Paul Rubin. No risk of vertigo here, but the effect lands. So, ultimately, does Empire. It's as contrived and corny as all get-out, but just try to leave the theater without a grin.