Monday, July 21, 2014

Tasty Tunes Make 'The Beverly Hillbillies' Musical Worth Tuning Into -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical
by David Rogers & Amanda Rogers
Music & lyrics by Gregg Opelka
Directed by David Perkovich
World Premiere
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN
Thru August 10

Given how much I prattle on--as in this article--about the enjoyment and benefits to be found in exploring culture and entertainment beyond (and especially, before) what is readily put within your purview, I must rather sheepishly admit this:

I have never, to my recollection, seen an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

This despite almost always knowing of the famed sitcom--which originally ran on CBS from 1962-71, then regularly in reruns during my youth and even until this day on Me-TV--including its rags-to-riches, fish-out-of-water premise and the names of its primary characters.

But unlike Gilligan's Island, The Honeymooners, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, Partridge Family and other classic television shows that essentially ordained the UHF dial--back in the proverbial day--not only did I not follow the Clampett clan with regularity, I really don't recall ever actually seeing the show.

So while I was drawn by my longstanding regard for the Theater at the Center in Munster, my admiration/curiosity about their staging the world premiere musical based on The Beverly Hillbillies and--to some extent--the title's TV immortality, it's not like I arrived with much point of reference, comparison or acute affinity.

Photo by Bridget Earnshaw and Theatre at the Center
Though I'm not sure how much that really matters. For in this day of new musicals often being based on well-known movies, franchises or other brand-name sources, the level of my fondness and/or familiarity with the source material (or lack thereof) has usually factored into my enjoyment far less than the quality of the score and songs written for the stage.

Cases in point, Young Frankenstein was a mediocre, even tedious musical despite my love for the movie, but though I--also somewhat sheepishly--never saw A Christmas Story on screen before seeing it on stage just a few years ago, I found the musical really terrific because so many of the songs were clever and catchy.

Such was largely the case with The Beverly Hillbillies: The Musical.

That's not to say it's a masterpiece, as devoid of any sharp edges it veers between being light, and slight, entertainment. This didn't detract all that much in Munster--where I was far younger than most of the crowd--but if this musical is destined for Broadway, a bit more acerbic bite may be necessary.

As it stands, the Ozark-bred Clampetts, their new neighbors in Beverly Hills and particularly the engaging, tuneful delivery of many endearing songs from Gregg Opelka's delightful original score make The Beverly Hillbillies a rather pleasant and enjoyable musical.

I'm not sure what prompted Theater at the Center to develop this piece, but it seems the story is that over 40 years ago a writer named David Rogers crafted a play based on the TV show. With that script initially envisioned as "the book," Gregg Opelka--who also created a musical I liked called La Vie Ennui--was hired to write music and lyrics.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
In learning of the project, Rogers was compelled to collaborate on a new script, and worked with Opelka for 3 years before passing away last summer. His daughter, Amanda Rogers, helped to finish what he started and shares writing credit.

I'm sure it couldn't have been easy to decide how to distill 274 television episodes into 2 hours of stage time, and the musical's early narrative following the hillbillies from their old home to their new one works more cleanly than the second act shenanigans involving a conniving pair of grifters and the multiple love interests of Jethro (John Stemberg), the nephew of Jed Clampett (James Harms).

But, from what I've garnered, The Beverly Hillbillies was never high drama, and it's not like the book here is laughable--in a bad way; there actually are a number of funny jokes. It's just that the characters, performances, songs and choreography (by Nicole Miller) are what make the musical directed by David Perkovich most enjoyable, and well-justify its existence.

Hence, even with 18 musical numbers, the show lagged at times between them. And it seemed like too many secondary characters got their own centerstage songs to sing.

But every one of Opelka's tunes was really good, many terrific--and this was on a first time hearing, in a way verifying what I've felt was wrong with several higher-profile world premiere musicals, including Big Fish last year.

Arriving at the theater to learn that one of the stars I was most looking forward to seeing--Summer Naomi Smart, who has been ravishing in several regional productions--had hurt her foot at a recent performance and the role of Elly May would be handled by an understudy named Julie Baird, I was delighted when the latter proved to be immensely appealing herself in belting out the show's first number, "What About Me?"

Having been introduced to Jed (wonderfully-played by the always great Harms), his daughter Elly May, his mother-in-law Granny (a terrific Kelly Anne Clark) and nephew Jethro as hillbillies who hit the gold mine--er, oil well--we are treated to buoyantly charming group numbers like "Millyun Air" and "We're Movin' West."

As the stage trades its Missouri swamp for a lavish Beverly Hills mansion--Ann N. Davis is the set designer--we are introduced to characters like banker Milburn Drysdale (Norm Boucher, who I remembered from The Producers at the same venue), his wife Margaret (Holly Stauder), his secretary Jane Hathaway (Tina Gluschenko), various other BH denizens and multiple suitors of Jethro's, including Emaline Fetty (the very well-sung Colette Todd, recently seen in Passion at Theo Ubique), supposedly a friend of the family from back home.

After the mirthful "Stamp It Like a Clampett" ends Act I, another substantive new character comes aboard after intermission: Colonel Gaylord Foxhall, dressed like Colonel Sanders and imbued with charm and smarm by another local stage stalwart, Bernie Yvon.

It's to all the actors' credit--and Opelka's--that six of nine second act songs feature someone other than (or along with) the four main Clampetts, and none comes close to being a dud.

Tunes like "Girl Friday" and "Just A Couple of Kids in Love" rise above being show-filling showtunes and stand well on their own, though I did feel Jed and Elly May got a little lost in the shuffle of visitors to the Clampett estate.

If this show does eventually get to Broadway--perhaps after pleasing audiences in regional productions nationwide--it's not hard to imagine the stars who sign on as Jed, Elly May and Granny demanding more vocalizing stage time and Cast Recording solo numbers.

But at this point, the creators, cast and crew of this fun, fine show are to be applauded--a standing ovation was deservedly bestowed on Sunday--as is the Theatre at the Center. I've seen several shows there, and have found it often does work on par with Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and Drury Lane Oakbrook (though both these venues, particularly the latter, have stepped up their game in recent years).

I can't speak much to TATC's recent quality, as I haven't caught anything else there for awhile, but I admire that they seem to be getting away from trotting out the tried-and-true in favor of brand new and recent musicals. In 2008, I had seen their world premiere of Knute Rockne: All American, and their 2014 slate has no signs of Gypsy or Fiddler on the Roof, but rather four shows I have never seen elsewhere.

Next up is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a musical adaptation of the Pedro Almodóvar film. Unlike The Beverly Hillbillies, this is not a world premiere as the show had a brief Broadway run in late 2010 (starring Patti Lupone), but to my awareness it has never toured or otherwise been produced on Chicago area stages.

With ample regard for the large number of seniors who comprised the audience at Sunday's matinee--and likely, TATC's subscriber base--it's to their credit as well that the Munster theater is able to program, and even commission, such unique fare.

Can I dare to be obvious and suggest that a musical version of The Munsters be forthcoming at Theater at the Center?

Anyway, before I started writing this I set my DVR to record a couple episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies off Me-TV, and I look forward to checking them out. But I'd like to think that whether one is highly nostalgic for the old show or--believe it or not--largely ignorant of it, this new musical should make for a rather satisfying, and perhaps even enriching, encounter.

If tolerance-espousing hillbillies can relocate happily to Beverly Hills, why can't Broadway-caliber new musicals arise from Northwest Indiana?

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