Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
Like every review I write, this is ONLY my opinion, but from where I sit Barry Manilow’s Copacabana is a terrible musical. It has a ludicrous book, cardboard characters for the hero and heroine, and a score with only one hummable tune – the title song. Usually the Mac-Haydn would manage to at least put a little spit and polish on a chrome-plated turkey like this, but in a bit of astoundingly bad casting they have a leading man and leading lady just as wooden and unbelievable as the characters they are playing. The only thing that makes this production bearable are the supporting players, Mac-Haydn veterans all, the glorious sets and costumes by the husband and wife team of Cathleen and Kristian Perry, and the always energetic boys and girls of the chorus.
I begin this review reminding you that this is merely what I think because there is no getting around the fact that the audience I attended with, and, I hear, subsequent crowds, found “Barry Manilow’s Copacabana” enjoyable and entertaining. It is obvious that your curmudgeonly critic is in the minority here, and it is not the first time to be sure. I am a critic so I get to be critical. You need to make your own decisions based on your own tastes in theatre.
If you were previously unaware that Barry Manilow had written a musical comedy, you are not alone. This show has never had a Broadway production, sneaking in to the country in 2000 via Pittsburgh after an inexplicably successful two-year run in London. Well, maybe not so inexplicable, since the London production used a framing device that has been eliminated here. In London the whole story was cast as the leading man’s dream, a device that accounts for a lot of the implausible plot and hokey dialogue. Dreams don’t make a whole lot of sense. In other words if this is a dream, its silly one, but if taken as reality, even musical comedy reality, it is too wacky to be work.
I don’t know if director John Saunders was responsible for removing the framing device, or whether the show is customarily performed this way, but if it was Saunders’ decision I can understand why he did it given the constraints and close quarters of the Mac-Haydn. It is hard enough to jam a big show like this into the Mac without having to worry about impossibly fast set and costume changes necessary at the open and close. Maybe, just maybe, with the right people in the leads, it could have worked.
The plot as it is performed here has Lola Lamar (Lauren Elizabeth Loss) fresh off the bus from Tulsa, Okla-nowhere hoping to make it big in New York in 1947. Specifically, she wants to be a Copa girl. Why the Copa and not Broadway? Obviously because on Broadway you have to learn all those lines and as a Copa girl you get plenty of adulation, jewels, furs, etc. just for standing around in your scanties and smiling. Lola is a bear of very little brain. She goes out on audition after audition singing a dreadful number called Man Wanted which has her decidedly unwanted on the Great White Way. When she trots out the same tune for her Copa audition, waiter/bartender/aspiring songwriter Tony Forte (Michael Kaczurak) picks up the tempo. Gladys (Karla Shook), the manager’s girlfriend and former Copa girl, encourages her to dance. And, wouldn’t you know it, she gets her big break.
This takes most of Act I, but in the last scene a sleazeball named Rico Castelli (Anthony Guerrero) comes in to the club with the big Cuban singing star Conchita Alvarez (Kelly L. Shook) on his arm. One look at Lola and he has to have her for his club the Tropicana in Havana, Cuba. So he drugs her and kidnaps her. Just how you get an unconscious woman on and off of an Air Havana flight, let alone through customs, is beyond me, but by Act II Lola is waking up in Havana, watching Rico slap Conchita around and being forced to appear in a horrible production number called El Bravo. I don’t know which is worse. Tony and Sam Silver (Stephen Bolte), the manager of the Copacabana, have followed Lola to Cuba and rescue her in a manner too ridiculous to expound on here. Next thing you know it’s the big finale and everyone is singing, what else, Barry Manilow’s Copacabana.
Why Loss is playing Lola when Kelly and Karla Shook are both on the stage being wasted in character bits is beyond me. Kelly just played an almost identical role in 42nd Street, but Karla hasn’t had a lead all season and she is such a sweet and genuine ingénue. Loss managed to win me over earlier in the season when she played Julie Jordan in Carousel but she had to fight hard for that approval. I was not taken with her early in that show and it was only after she wrung tears from my eyes at Billy Bigelow’s death scene that I decided to give her the thumbs up. In order for Lola to be believable she needs to be obviously prettier and more talented than the rest of the girls on stage, and she needs to be enough of an actress/personality to make me care about this dimwitted chick – in other words she needs to be a star from the git-go. Loss, after her turn as Julie, has melted so inconspicuously into the chorus that it took me a couple of shows to realize she was still with the company. A real stand-out can’t do that. Don’t get me wrong. Loss is pretty and she sings very nicely, which was why she worked in a Rodgers and Hammerstein show, but this is not her role.
Here she is teamed with Michael Kaczurak as Tony, a young man who here gets his first shot at a leading role after some nice work in the chorus and a small speaking part in The Student Prince. Like Loss he a strong singer and a mediocre dancer, an unfortunate confluence of strengths and weaknesses in a show that is dance-intensive and boasts a forgettable score. Kaczurak is good-looking in an earnest, all-American way that works well for this role. I think that he has potential and I hope that another shot at a lead or second banana part comes soon for him. Here he is too inexperienced to carry an already struggling show.
Okay, so the book, the music, and the lyrics are awful. The leading man and leading lady are weak. What is there to recommend this show? Great costumes, lots of energetic dance numbers from the chorus, with Gavin Waters a stand-out in some solo dance turns, and a boffo supporting cast. Frankly, Karla Shook and Stephen Bolte got the biggest hand at the curtain calls, and they richly deserved it. They are funny and talented. I was so happy to see Bolte get a chance to sing and clown around in this show because he does both so well. Karla Shook is stuck playing her gum-snapping tough girl again, but she does it with a twinkle in her eye. The best part of the whole show was the Act II opener when Karla Shook and Bolte teamed with Waters, a hilarious Paul Colarusso, and two attractive ladies of the chorus for the comedy number Who Am I Kidding? For ten minutes everything on that stage worked. Leave it to the pros.
Guerrero brings an authentic ethnic flare to that hopelessly wooden evil-doer Rico. He can swivel his hips for me anytime! And Kelly L. Shook does her best playing against type as an over-the-hill Latina. She looked fabulous in her “Havana Caramba” flounces and, as always, danced up a storm.
Rusty Curcio is responsible for all the wonderful dancing, and there is plenty of it, sometimes to the detriment of the plot (Did I just accuse this show of having a plot?) but that is not Curcio’s fault. While I hated the rescue scene on many levels, Curcio’s beautifully choreographed slow-motion fight scene was excellent. The endless movement is enhanced greatly by Cathleen Perry’s gorgeous costumes, some of which got a hand of their own at the performance I attended. As a team Cathleen and Kristian Perry have really brought the barn-like confines of the Mac-Haydn up to nightclub standards of glamour, which is a neat trick and something to see.
Barry Manilow's Copacabana runs through August 21 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005