By Patrick Hurley
During the dark days of the Great Depression, perhaps some of the darkest in America’s history, a group of people sought to buck the spirit of the American people by building the tallest skyscraper in the world: The Empire State Building. This is the story of Empire, a new musical, playing now through February 14 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Visionary financier John J. Raskob (Tony Shledon), hires architect Michael Shaw (Kevin Early) to design a monument, a building that was to bear the name of Ex-New York Governor, Al Smith (Michael McCormick). The Al Smith Building is given a fourteen-month deadline. A seemingly impossible task. Enter Al Smith’s “right hand man” or “can do gal” Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson). Peterson is able to manipulate steel shippers as well as the men in the concrete business. She can convince workers to risk their lives to build a dream. And she’s in good with both politicians and the press. She and Peterson must work together in order to get the building done in the allotted time. But of course, for the sake of dramatic tension, and because nearly every other traditional musical uses the same trope, Peterson and Shaw can’t stand each other. But of course we know that’s not true. They deeply love each other, and are masking it until they have their big confessional love number right before the end of the show. Because if there were a diagram on how to write a standard musical that’s where that number should go. And so it goes for all of Empire, it pushes no boundaries, it sets no new tone, it simply complies with standard musical form.
The story is muddled with subplots that never amount to enough to justify them. The love story of Shaw and Peterson feels obligatory. The story of the O’Dowd’s, Ethan (Caleb Shaw) and Emily (Katharine McDonough) is thrown in for dramatic effect, but isn’t fleshed out. The story of John J. Raskob’s daughter Betty (Charlotte Maltby) seemed like a great opportunity to hit upon women’s struggles, and use the character as an independent female voice that doesn’t rely on a man to validate her. Unfortunately, it feels like it’s trying to make a feminist statement, rather than actually making one. Betty’s story happens too late, and then it’s just resolved in one line at the end.
With book, music and lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull, Empire is a dated slightly bloated affair that goes on too long. It devolves into the realm of sentimental, and takes the easy way out of most of it’s subplots. The music feels fairly generic, without any of the songs catchy enough to be remembered past the lobby. The opening number “Heyday” comes the closest. “Lunch Time” ends with a wonderfully iconic stage picture, but the song itself takes a bit too long to get there.
Director/Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge does a fine job with the material she has. Some of the dance numbers are quite good, and while the production feels stagnate at times, that’s a flaw in the writing not directing.
The scenic and projection design (David Gallo & Brad Peterson) is a mixed bag. The projections, which take up the whole upstage area and are used as backdrops and moving images for every scene, are sometimes wonderfully utilized, especially when they appear as more abstract art, rather than video game tutorial, which is unfortunately where a good deal of them end up. Particularly the building site projections, when the actors start interacting with the steel beams it feels like a strange interactive Sim City game. Final animation of the Empire State Building, likewise, could use some retooling.
There are details in this show that are worthy of mentioning. The costumes, designed by Leon Wiebers, are wonderfully authentic and flashy. The actors are all capable and strong enough to create likeable characters that pull us through the slog that most of this show could otherwise have been dragged down into. Particularly Stephanie Gibson, who imbues Frankie with so much energy and gumption that she is impossible to dislike.
Given the time period of this particular play, it falls victim to the same traps and clichés that have plagued female characters for centuries. And even though it’s centered around a seemingly strong woman, she is entirely dependent on the men in her life for all of her motivations, and her successes and failures rely on their approval of her. Which is a real shame because the actress is so capable and strong, that it’s kind of a letdown that she falls into the role of just another woman waiting for the men in her life to see her and validate her.
In the end, this is a very standard musical, with the added novelty of massive amounts of projections, some of which are exciting, and some of which pull you right out of the story. It’s not a throwback, because it’s less aware of itself than that. It actually becomes the thing it’s fondly recalling, and that makes it an old-fashioned musical about old-fashioned ideals with old-fashioned numbers. And so it’s less throwback and more rehash.
Book, Music & Lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull
Musical Direction by Sariva Goetz
Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
January 23-February 14
Weds & Thurs 730 PM
Sat 2PM & 8PM
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
14900 La Mirada Blvd. La Mirada, CA 90638
562.944.9801 or 714.994.6310