What’s New Pussycat Is Surprisingly Effective Blast From The Past At Stage Door

Leah Sessa, Mike Westrich, Sara Ashley, Shane Tanner, Brandy Lee Ward and Clay Cartland in the Moon River number from What's New Pussycat / Photo by George Wentzler

Leah Sessa, Mike Westrich, Sara Ashley, Shane Tanner, Brandy Lee Ward and Clay Cartland in the Moon River number from What’s New Pussycat / Photo by George Wentzler

By Bill Hirschman

The secret of the highly improbable but undeniable success of the new ‘60s musical revue What’s New PussycatThe 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 six-part a cappella harmony that is ineffably and ethereally lovely.

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 many, many standout moments and they all benefit from the same sensibility envisioned by Michael Leeds and Kevin Black who conceived and directed this show. Perhaps because the entire cast wasn’t born when these songs were part of the fabric of Boomers’ lives, they bring an actors’ chops to interpreting these numbers as if they were new.

Therefore, when Leah Sessa 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.

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” lovingly rendered by Sara Ashley There’s the folky protest song “Eve of Destruction” given a surprisingly effective rendition by Clay Cartland to the melancholy “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” simply nailed by Brandy Lee Ward. 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” and, lord help us, Doctor Doolittle’s “Talk To The Animals.” Sometimes they mix it up by giving songs to different genders such as Shane Tanner’s lovely run at “Do You Wanna Dance?”

It is 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, but they carry them off reasonably well.

The performers wisely never try to imitate the sound of the original singers, so when Tanner 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 and the cast ending up in various keys.

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 Mike Westrich singing “Mrs. Robinson” to projected photos of an unlikely choice for an older sex symbol.

Stage Door has hired four of the best young voices in the region in Tanner, Cartland, Sessa and Westrich, and brought in two superb ringers, Ward and Ashley. It’s unfair to single out anyone, but Westrich just keeps getting better and better as he proves with his take on “Unchained Melody.”

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 Ward and Ashley 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 Sept. 28 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 West Sample Road, Coral Springs. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and 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.

To see a photo slide show by George Wentzler, click here.

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