WINTER PARK — As the lights go down in the Winter Park Playhouse, the musical director, Christopher Leavy, comes on stage — with a glass of wine in his hand.
He walks to the piano, sits down, and takes a drink from the wine glass. As he prepares to start playing the music that will launch the Playhouse’s new production, “Showtune,” he stops, picks up that wine glass again — and finishes it all in a big gulp.
The moment drew some laughs and even applause from the audience on the production’s opening night, but it was all done for a purpose. “Showtune” is a salute to the musical genius of Jerry Herman. Among his many legendary Broadway and movie credits, of course, is the classical musical “Mame,” about the eccentric bohemian Mame Dennis, whose famous motto was “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.”
The entire production, featuring six immensely talented singers who bring Herman’s repertoire to life, and that opening moment with Leavy and his glass of wine, fully capture the mood and sentiment behind this show: it’s not just a musical revue, it’s a party, folks — so sit back, and have a grand old time. Unless your normal temperament is toward excessive gloominess, chances are you truly will.
Herman (who lives in Miami), of course, is the composer and lyricist with an impressive resume of Broadway musical smashes — not only “Mame” but also “Hello, Dolly!”, “La Cage aux Folles,” and “Milk and Honey” among them.
Raised in New Jersey, he learned to play the piano at an early age while his father, a gym teacher, spent the summers working in the Catskill Mountains hotels — not a bad way to expose Jerry to the music performed there. While a student at the University of Miami, Herman produced, wrote and directed a college musical called “Sketchbook,” which became the longest running show in the history of the university’s theater. After graduation he moved to New York City and worked on Off-Broadway shows, while also playing piano at a Jazz club called the Showplace. In 1960, Herman made his Broadway debut with the revue “From A to Z,” which featured contributions from Woody Allen and Fred Ebb.
The Winter Park Playhouse salute, which was directed by Michael Edwards and features choreography by the theater’s artistic director Roy Alan, goes through 47 of Herman’s songs over the course of two hours — and Herman’s bouncy, upbeat, often very clever and funny songs do indeed make it feel like the kind of party that Auntie Mame was famous for celebrating.
For more casual followers of Broadway musicals, there will be those well known Herman favorites like the splashy theme song to “Hello, Dolly!”, the holiday perennial “We Need a Little Christmas” (from “Mame”) and the beloved gay anthem “I Am What I Am” (from “La Cage aux Folles”) that put a quick smile on your face as you’re listening to them.
“Showtune” is also a great opportunity to rediscover some forgotten songs, like “Shalom” from “Milk and Honey” or “And I was Beautiful” from his 1969 show “Dear World” (which starred Angela Lansbury.)
One of my favorite moments in this show was the delight of watching Priscilla Bagley and Kelly Morris Rowan perform the backstabbing comedic song “Bosom Buddies” (from “Mame”), and the opening of the second act, which looks back at the early years of the movie industry through the song “Movies Were Movies” from Herman’s 1974 musical “Mack & Mabel.” Forty-seven songs, and each one feels as fresh today as anything playing on MTV.
In addition to Bagley and Rowan, the cast features Kayla Kelsay-Morales as the three women singers, and Michael Colavolpe, Benjamin Ptashinsky and Joshua Kolb as the three men, with occasional singing from Leavy as well. Each one fully captures what Herman’s songs were all about: humor, wit, pathos, sentimentality, and a great deal of class.
In fact, the Winter Park Playhouse’s production is an ideal combination of supremely gifted singers and performers, and such wonderfully timeless material.
“Showtune” was conceived by writer Paul Gilger and had its premiere in San Francisco in 1985. The song-cycle format is a real joy to watch, putting an emphasis not only on Herman’s music but also his lyrics — which were uniformly upbeat and optimistic. This is not only a great tribute to one of Broadway’s true legends, but also a reminder of why so many of Herman’s songs have become pop standards over the years.
“Showtune” runs through April 23 at the theater at 711 Orange Ave. Suite C in Winter Park. For tickets and reservations, call 407-645-0145.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..