Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Over the Moon for Up and Away

Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer shows Colin Stephen Kane, Danielle 
Valentine, Paul Wrona, Joe Thiessen, and Malia Tippets
By Tina Arth

It is said that certain moments in your life are indelibly etched in memory – could be first love, or first car, or (depending on your age) the Kennedy assassination(s) or 9/11. For me, add in the first time I saw The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Young Frankenstein, Little Shop of Horrors, Sugar, Minnie’s Boys, and now Broadway Rose’s production of Up and Away. Yes, it is that funny. The show had its world premiere in Pittsburgh last year, and (after some revision by the authors) is enjoying its West Coast premiere right here in Tigard. The book and lyrics by Kevin Hammonds are tightly scripted, witty, and thoroughly wacky, and Kristin Bair’s music fits perfectly with the show’s, shall we say eccentric, ambience. Dan Murphy’s direction and choreography should be permanently embedded as definitive for future productions – the exuberant, unapologetic silliness left me breathless.

The story (at least a bland, spoiler-free version suitable for reviewing) is this: like many other royal parents of fiction, a pair of anxious aliens on a Pluto-adjacent planet exile their helpless infant to save him from certain death (in this case, at the hands of rebel assassins). The terrified pair sends their baby out into space in a metallic, egg-shaped cocoon (Star Wars? Superman? Greatest American Hero?). Years later on an isolated farm in Farmtown, USA, brothers Joe and Jerry Jessup are digging the hole for a new outhouse when they uncover the mysterious object. Despite warnings from his cautious brother, the impetuous Joe opens the “egg,” tries on the red gloves within, and quickly discovers that he now has the power to see 5 seconds into the future. Joe has always longed to see the outside world; ignoring the pleas of Mother Jessup and Jerry, he heads for Big City where he encounters intrepid, aspiring girl reporter Susie Dare, mega-wealthy Ronak Fairchild, and a host of absurd comic-book villains (shades of Batman and Spiderman) who are wreaking havoc on the local citizenry. Donning the requisite red long-johns and now able to fly (poorly), Joe becomes crime fighter Super Saver, falls for Susie, and gets the on-air reporter job she wanted at the radio station. When brother Jerry arrives to check up on Joe, he meets Susie and sparks fly. I dare go no further…

The three men and two women who populate the stage have to be among the hardest-working people in show business – perhaps out done only by the Broadway  Rose crew who have to manage the lightning quick costume and scene changes that magically turn five actors into countless (I lost track around 20) characters while paying homage to almost as many iconic musicals, comic books, and television shows. While Paul Wrona (Joe), Colin Stephen Kane (Jerry), and Malia Tippets (Susie) primarily play themselves, only occasionally changing into villains by donning a pumpkin head, habit, or beekeeper’s mask, Danielle Valentine and Joe Theissen assume a dizzying array of roles.  The playwrights pay open homage to Annie with station WBC’s singing trio, adding pink fascinators to turn Tippets, Theissen, and Valentine’s “Dapper Cracker Sisters” into Big City’s own version of the Lovely Boylan Sisters. In another cheerfully derivative moment, Theissen’s big entrance as Fairchild evokes an even glitzier take on Carol Channing descending the staircase in Hello Dolly. Wrona’s low-tech flying is hilarious – definitely drawn from the era of George Reeve, not Christopher Reeves.

Up and Away is, of course, a musical, and Broadway Rose provides the perfect West Coast launchpad.  Music director/conductor James Pick does a masterful job with the John Williams-esque introductory themes, and the 23 songs give the actors ample opportunity to showcase their vocal talents.  One of the first clues that Jerry may be more than meets the eye comes from Kane’s singing – his powerful vocals belie the character’s timid affect. By contrast, Wrona’s bigger, stronger Joe has a pleasant voice, more than up to the task of delivering the songs but somehow inconsistent with his heroic persona – suggesting that Super Saver may not be the key to Big City’s salvation. Theissen’s vocal tour de force comes from the decadent Ronak’s “Join Me, Won’t You,” and he simply sparkles in his guise as a Dapper Cracker Sister. In her role as Susie, Tippets sweetly nails her two key duets with Jerry in addition to her vocals with the full ensemble and as a Dapper Cracker. While Valentine’s ensemble work is fine, she shines brightest in character roles as Mother Jessup, the drunken secretary, and Ronak’s sidekick/butler.

It’s tough to differentiate between the choreography and the overall staging – the comedy is intrinsic to both, and characters move (sometimes fluidly and sometimes frantically) from one moment to the next with the help of amazingly creative props and some of the funniest and cleverest choreography I’ve ever seen. Costumes (based on the original Pittsburgh designs by Leon Dobrowski) range from suitably hackneyed (e.g., Farmville hick and Susie’s conservative reporter attire) to utterly outrageous – perfectly in keeping with the tone of the show.

It’s sometimes hard to attract an audience for a new show, but word seems to have gotten out, and many of the best seats are long gone on the Broadway Rose ticket site. Best bet? Unless you have zero tolerance for unrestrained fun, buy tickets now and treat yourself to a spectacular couple of hours. One warning – despite the comic book ambience, the show does contain some mature language and may not be appropriate for your kiddos.

Up and Away is playing at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard through Sunday, February 23.

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