Top Gun! The Musical in FTL Crashes and Burns

Christopher Michaels, James Lott and Lindsey Johr

By Mary Damiano

Top Gun! The Musical might sound like a bad joke: How does one bring the iconic Tom Cruise film to the stage, as a mega-musical? Punchline: Not very well.

That’s the premise of this pseudo-parody, which debuted a decade ago at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Jack Gardner, who served as musical director of the show’s Dallas premiere in 2006, is now directing the local premiere at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale.

Top Gun! The Musical is a show within a show about a harried director named Billy (Todd Storey) and the cast of actors hired to bring the iconic 1986 fly-boy flick to the stage. His cast is made up of stock character clichés who don’t have names outside of their Top Gun characters.  There’s Maverick (James Lott) a clueless leading man, Charlie (Kelly Kopf) the talentless leading lady who slept her way into the job, and Iceman (Christopher Michaels) a drama queen with eyes for his dumb-as-a-doornail Maverick.  The clichés continue with Wendy (Christie Oliver) a devoted assistant in love with the director, and The General (Gisbert Heuer) a German producer with shady overseas investors more interested in box office than his director’s artistic vision. For some reason that is never explained, the role of Goose, Maverick’s wing man, is a gender-bender played by pretty, titian-haired Lindsey Johr.

Even though Top Gun! The Musical gets off to a promising start, with Goose pushing Maverick around the tiny stage in a cockpit that appears to have been fashioned from a wheelbarrow, singing the catchy song “We’ve Got a Plane to Catch” an opening number designed to give exposition about Maverick’s dead daddy issues, Top Gun! The Musical quickly takes a nose dive. There is no plot to speak of; the cast simply recreates/parodies various scenes from Top Gun, while dealing with typical backstage dramedy.

Top Gun! The Musical, with music by Scott White and book and lyrics by Denis McGrath, has a campy, fun vibe and, with some work, could turn into a cult circuit favorite. Of course, the writers would have to figure out whose story they’re telling and introduce the conflict sooner than the second act.

And it would need a strong director and cohesively talented cast in order to make it work. Unfortunately, this production lacks both, and the promising material is a victim of sloppy execution.

This is amateur hour at its worst.  The amateurish vibe even extended to the opening night audience, many of whom knew cast members, and used their phones to take photos and shoot video throughout the performance.

Where to start? Perhaps with the lack of timing from the majority of the cast or the recitation that passes for delivery, or maybe that during the ensemble songs, each cast member seemed to be singing in a different key. (And get this — they’ve recorded a cast album, which will be available Feb.23.)

The exception to all of this is Michaels, who is a pleasure to watch. His performance injects his character with some personality and back-story, transcending the Iceman role to show the actor playing the character as a world-weary theatre gypsy who’s seen many big breaks fall through. He’s especially funny when he’s trying to introduce a little homoerotic bromance into the storyline. Ironically, Michaels stepped in for an ailing actor, and only had six rehearsals before opening night. He’s going to be replaced after opening weekend by Laurence London, who has a pretty big flight suit to fill.

As for the other actors — and that word is used very loosely — Storey recites his lines and never comes close to embodying the urgency of his character, a director who desperately needs a hit after three flops, including Apocalypse Wow and Die Hard! The Musical. Storey won’t be in the show for the Feb. 17 and 18 performances, when Tommy Paduano will step in.

Oliver seems like a promising performer with a decent voice, but lacks stage confidence and can’t project. Many of her lines are inaudible in the back of the theatre, which in this case is the third row. Johr’s main attribute is her voice, and she loves to show it off to glass-shattering heights, a running joke in the play. Lott is as charisma-free as it gets, a non-descript actor who fades into the background, a baffling choice for cocky Maverick. Heuer gets one of the best songs in the show “Just Put the Asses in the Seats,” but he is a stiff performer and looks uncomfortable throughout his song and dance scene. Kopf is a triple threat: she can’t act, sing or dance.

This production of Top Gun! The Musical suffers from Shoulda Woulda Coulda Syndrome:  It shoulda been cast with performers who could actually sing and act. It woulda had a shot at being a cult hit. And it coulda been a lot of fun, if it were only in more capable hands. But as it is, Top Gun! The Musical crashes and burns.

Top Gun! The Musical runs through March 4 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale.  For tickets and information, call 954-871-0168 or visit www.topgunftl.com.

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7 Responses to Top Gun! The Musical in FTL Crashes and Burns

  1. Scott Garrett says:

    I believe this reviewer’s impression of this production was not very good. That is the job of a theater reviewer … to evaluate a show based upon their professional opinion.

    Let me make it clear … I have no idea who anyone involved with this production is … I know nothing of the theater, director or any of the performers.

    I am, however, offended by this reviewer’s tone. I don’t need to read of personal attacks on people working so hard to entertain an audience to the best of their ability.

    To use a play on words to personally demean an actor … the “triple threat” comment … is just rude and a turn off to this reader.

    This reviewer is not a professional whose opinion I could possibly trust.

  2. Joe Passmore says:

    Is this “rewiewer” just bitter?
    I did a search on this show because I enjoyed it so much at my local theater and found this bitter woman spewing hate. I saw the opening show of “Top Gun the Musical” and, like the rest of the audience, had such a great time.
    This review just seems like a childish attempt to practice a shap tounge using bad puns and personal attacks. What an easy cop-out.
    If this “reviewer” is so bitter and tired of going to local theater, She should just quit reviewing. This is not the forum for seeing how bitterly ugly you can shapen your wit with.
    To be clear, I am not a family member of anyone in the cast of this show, and showing this review to friends of mine, the B-word and even C-word came up, and EVEYONE found the harsh, childish tone, unnecessary.
    I guess, all-in-all, if this “reviewer” is just looking to be bitchy and witty at the expense of local theater, she should stick to posting on her wall on facebook to her friends that don’t mind.
    THIS REVIEW HURTS THIS WEBSITE.
    IT CAN NOT BE TRUSTED.
    Your witty ego is killing local theater.
    Please stop,
    Joe Passmore

  3. Joe Passmore says:

    I did a recent search on “Top Gun the Musical” to see what the local critics thought and found this bitter, hateful, review of a local production that I thoroughly enjoyed.
    I tried to post here once, listing my disdain for this “reviewer” but it was taken down immediately. I’ll try again.
    I am not a family member, associated with anyone from the cast or theater, but I can not believe that this “reviewer” is using this forum to spew such hatred and personal attacks on local actors.
    To sharpen your bitter wit at the expense of local theater, is a shame.
    The audience, the night I saw this show had a great time. If you are expecting Broadway or a movie, Stay home and STOP REVIEWING LOCAL THEATER.
    This “reviewer” is hurting the TRUST of this web-site.
    If I see her name on a review again, I will just think, “Bitter, unprofessional, and inappropriate.”
    Lost a lot of trust,
    Joe Passmore

    ps If this link works, You can see that she has been banned from a local theater before for being bitter. http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/pulp/2010/10/rising_action_theatre_mary_damiano.php

  4. Both the commenters know that Mary Damiano is one of the most respected theater critics in the South Florida community, and her contributions with the Carbonell Awards transcend her job as a critic; she helps raise the profile, stature and indeed the quality of theater in South Florida. She’s not “bitter.” If either of you have ever seen any show at Mosaic, GableStage, Caldwell, Dramaworks … heck, anywhere else in South Florida, you might understand where she’s coming from. You don’t have to be a harsh critic to recognized that this production is really, really bad and amateurish.

  5. Oops — I meant to say “Both commenters SHOULD know…”

  6. Bill Hirschman says:

    From Bill Hirschman, editor and publisher: We rarely respond to reactions to our work. We believe that all comment is fair as long as it is civil. If we are going to critique others’ work, we should be open to good faith critiques of ours. What prompts this response is the mention of Ms. Damiano being banned from another theater, a situation we are quite conversant with. For clarification purposes only, we will mention that the banning was part of a complex and lengthy struggle with the theater in question. Ms. Damiano had accurately reported in news articles about an embarrassing controversy regarding that theater as well as gave the theater some critical reviews of shows and performances that some observers also felt were substandard. We have and continue to stand behind Ms. Damiano’s professionalism and integrity. For what it’s worth (but this would not affect our opinion of her work), her assessment of the show us not unique. Please read the review by John Thomason in New Times: http://www.browardpalmbeach.com/2012-02-16/culture/top-gun-the-musical-at-empire-stage-offbeat-comedy-is-just-plane-bad/ No doubt the people concerned about Ms. Damiano’s review will continue to object to her tone. It would take an entire column to address this adequately. Suffice it to say that (a) we back her up completely, and (b) we respect the difference of opinion expressed by the writers of the comments.

  7. Mark Eagle says:

    Mary,
    First of all I am so glad to find you as I had moved to Atlanta a few years ago but moved back here about two years ago. I miss your writings and am glad to find a place where I can read your reviews!
    Second, Since being back in Florida I have been very dissapointed by the lack of quality of several plays produced here that I had previously seen in Atlanta where they were presented by much more talanted groups of people for the same price point. These include Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the same theatre as Top Gun. Me and my friend walked out toward the end of the first act of Hedwig. Grey Gardens was another example of a play produced by Actors Express in Atlanta that when brought down here was just not up to par. While I commend the Actors for trying to do their best, maybe it is the directors who are to blame for these really bad productions of otherwise very good plays. I was going to give this theatre another try with Top Gun but after reading your article and the one in the other paper I will save my $25 for something else.

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