By Bill Hirschman
The secret of the improbable success of the’60s musical revue What’s New Pussycat — The Soundtrack of an Era at Broward Stage Door is encapsulated in the second-to-last musical number.
The smooth solid voices of six performers are caressing the first familiar strains of “Moon River” when something happens. The canned background music stops and the singers, sitting on the edge of the stage, launch into a lovely six-part a cappella harmony.
More important, the delicate intricate arrangement takes the overly-familiar classic and bends it just enough and the cast invests it with just enough genuine sentiment that the tune seems as fresh as the first time you heard it.
So without violating the spirit of the original and the memories that it summons up in the audience, the show does not at all feel like a commercialized pandering K-tel Greatest Hits album.
The entire show of about 50 songs from throughout the decade is not as uniformly strong as that high point, and the show is constantly fighting (usually successfully) to avoid a strong whiff of elevator music homogenization.
But there are standout moments and they all benefit from the same sensibility envisioned by Michael Leeds and Kevin Black who conceived and directed this show of songs that were part of the fabric of Boomers’ lives.
When Caitie L. Moss throws herself into “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me,” she delivers paint blistering passion as if she was singing an 11 o’clock power ballad from a Broadway musical, not a plasticized cover of a ‘60s classic.
This is a revival of the production’s premiere at Broward Stage Door in August 2014 with the same creative team but a completely different cast. This troupe is composed of earnest, talented – but less accomplished and convincing — performers. Most have enviable clarion belting voices, but not that extra bit of topspin that experienced singing actors can give, the quality that made the first run such a surprising success.
What’s New Pussycat is a bookless revue containing virtually every major pop song you can think of off the top of your head. It illustrates how a country once embracing a half-dozen major musical genres suddenly awoke to a pop culture fractured into another dozen, all of which are on display here.
There’s the puerile “Name Game Song” and the profound “Bridge Over Troubled Water” ending in a lovely harmony. There’s the folky protest song “Eve of Destruction” given a surprisingly effective rendition of wistful rue rather than anger by Jay Wilkinson. There’s The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Simon and Garfunkle.
There’s a run of songs tied to dance crazes like The Twist and The Locomotion. Another set focuses on film themes like “To Sir With Love,” “Goldfinger,” “Georgy Girl.” Sometimes they mix it up by giving songs to different genders such as “Do You Wanna Dance?”
The staging includes the droll idea of two performers fighting over a microphone during the dispensable “Talk To the Animals” from the film Doctor Doolittle. And it can be a bit indecipherable such as a middle-class couple who seem to be tourists lost somewhere in “California Dreamin’”
In the original production populated totally by Caucasians, it was a little weird hearing a bunch of white people singing Motown songs by the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and Martha and the Vandellas complete with the classic choreography. This time, the production includes Jessica Bennett and Brandon Godfrey, African-Americans who carry these songs off with a bit more authenticity.
The performers wisely never try to imitate the sound of the original singers, so when Godfrey croons “Georgia On My Mind,” he honors Ray Charles’ phrasing but isn’t trying to duplicate his inimitable sound.
The vocal arrangements (some by musical director Eric Alsford) also distance the show from the originals by allowing the singers to take the melody lines somewhere other than originally penned. This is a little disorienting at times, but it also reinforces a commitment to keep the material fresh. The only time this doesn’t work – and does this ever fall on its face — is on Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” with every single note of the original melody (such as it is) gone AWOL.
Much of it is played straight, although a few numbers in the second half are meant to be a bit of a hoot such as Preston Grover singing “Mrs. Robinson” to a projected photo slide show of an unlikely choice for an older sex symbol.
Stage Door has hired strong voices: three of them Godfrey, Grover and Wilkinson just left this stage a few weeks ago where they were performing in another jukebox revue Pompadour. All six have their moments, but Wilkinson has a gorgeous tenor, a glowing Pepsodent smile and a squeaky clean charisma that stands out,
The order of the songs in the first act is roughly, but not perfectly, chronological. It mirrors the social and cultural evolution of the tumultuous decade from innocence to disillusionment — charted by projected newspaper headlines that start off announcing postage stamps going up to five cents and ending with man landing on the moon. The second act has thematic sets focusing on topics like marriage and breakups.
The music is digital, much of it is taken from Kevin Black’s extensive library of pre-recorded music and karaoke discs, but most of them are passable professional tracks.
But under Alsford’s baton, the singers never sound less than first-rate, especially in the interweaving chorale numbers like the “Moon River” number or Caitie Moss and Dana Reminsky on “A House Is Not a Home.”
Is this music for the ages actually worthy of such treatment? Boomers like me can’t judge fairly. This is the music we listened to in our middle and persisting adolescence. But there’s a bit of revenge here for our parents who watched us Boomers snicker while sitting through the songbook revues of their music for the past decade or two at Broward Stage Door. And 20 years from now, I expect we will be sitting in Stage Door listening to the nostalgic Bieber, Beyoncé and Backstreet Boys revue.
What’s New Pussycat? The Soundtrack of an Era plays through March 27 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $38 – $42 with $16 student tickets. Call 954-344-7765 or visit www.stagedoortheatre.com.