“Reunion” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Anyone who’s gone to a high school reunion – hell, anyone who’s gone to high school – will identify with a line in the press release for Reunion, the good-natured new musical with music by Mark Ellis and book and lyrics by Ellis, Michael Lange, and David M. Matthews: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll cringe.”

It’s reunion time at Frogs Neck High School, somewhere in upstate New York, and a bunch of graduates from a class long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away mix, mingle, eat, drink, and reminisce about the good, the bad, and the ugly of their high school years and what’s happened since.

L-R David Babich, Bradley Kuykendall, and Michael Gabiano as "The Specs." Photo by Michael Lamont

L-R David Babich, Bradley Kuykendall, and Michael Gabiano as “The Specs.” Photo by Michael Lamont

Let’s pretend this is the yearbook, and here’s the list of What I Liked and What I Didn’t:

What I Liked:

– The large and talented cast. They sing, dance, and act with grace and verve, and manage to make themselves distinct individuals.

– The direction and choreography by Kay Cole. In a relatively small space, she manages a lot of people doing a lot of stuff, and makes the piece lively and engaging without being overwhelming.

– The set by Joel Daavid, lights by Matthew Richter, costumes by Mylette Nora, and projections by Yee Eun Nam, all of which make valuable contributions.

– The general sweetness of the piece. Coming from a cynic like me, you probably think that’s an insult, or, at best, a backhanded compliment. But you’d be wrong. The creators of Reunion, and the performers, appear genuinely to want everyone to have a good time – and that means a lot. Their enthusiasm is palpable and infectious.

L-R Suzanne Mayes, Marc Cedric Smith, and Sharon Catherine Brown. Photo by Michael Lamont

L-R Suzanne Mayes, Marc Cedric Smith, and Sharon Catherine Brown. Photo by Michael Lamont

What I Didn’t:

– The prerecorded music. True, live musicians add expense and a layer of complexity, but they’re also part of what makes a musical a musical. And since several of the central characters were members of a band which played at the prom (they all wore glasses, and called themselves “The Specs”), having the music on tape is particularly unfortunate. Imagine the fun everyone could have if the music were played live onstage by the 2015 version of “The Specs” (“The Contacts”? “The Google Glasses”?). Even if the band were offstage or behind a screen, the sound would be more immediate. Reunion is an exercise in nostalgia. Be nostalgic. Remember Nancy Reagan. Just say no to canned sound.

– The mics. Yes, I know, we’ve all grown accustomed to amplified sound and can’t live without it. And if this show were being done at the Ahmanson, mics would indeed be necessary. But the NoHo Arts Center is relatively tiny, and these actors are all capable of projection. Aside from the tangible ugliness of mics taped to peoples’ faces in a small space, seeing someone’s lips move stage left while his or her voice emanates from a speaker somewhere else is unnerving, to say the least. Reunion is an intimate show in an intimate theatre, but with mics the intimacy goes out the window.

– The vulgarity. There’s a line in an old Cockney vaudeville routine – “I’m broadminded to the point of obscenity” – which pretty much sums up my taste in entertainment. However, even I found myself wincing at the occasional gratuitous and mean-spirited crudeness which was out of place with the good-natured quality of the show. A number with details about how a character boffed several of the women at the reunion? And an entire song about penis size? Really?

– The songs which are litanies of facts rather than expressions of emotion. Two-time Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth put it very well in an interview not too long ago, when she said, “In a really well-written musical, you talk until you just can’t talk anymore, you’re going to have to sing. And when you’re just so full you can’t sing anymore, then you have to dance. It’s a natural progression.” The most successful song in Reunion is “Watching Her Breathe.” In it, the character of Elliot sings of his yearning for a long-ago love, a fellow student he never told about his feelings: we experience his excitement, his joy, his regret and sense of loss, as well as his longing to see her again. Similarly, “The Beginning” – in which Elliot’s almost-lost love Amelia determines to make the rest of her life count – is almost as successful, because again we see the character’s emotions: disappointment at what has gone before, a resolve to make things better, and hope she will succeed.

L-R Kim Reed as Adult Amelia, Ali Axelrad as Young Amelia, and David Babich as Elliot. Photo by Michael Lamont

L-R Kim Reed as Adult Amelia, Ali Axelrad as Young Amelia, and David Babich as Elliot. Photo by Michael Lamont

Too many of the songs, on the other hand, are reductive if not didactic: recitations of events, problems, incidents, and the like. There’s no reason for them to be sung, other than that this is a musical. But every song in a musical needs to be earned, and there must be a reason for it. Even Kiss Me Kate’s “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” – a “list song” if ever there was one – comes about because the gangsters are caught onstage and have to invent a cover story. Aside from the Elliot-Amelia numbers, the best we get in Reunion is “Chardonnay,” a witty take on a housewife’s best friend.

– Princeton doesn’t have a law school.

There’s a lot to like in Reunion, and if you’re willing to overlook the flaws and give in to the nostalgia and good feelings… you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe!

Music by Marc Ellis
Book and Lyrics by Marc Ellis, Michael Lange, and David M. Matthews
Directed and Choreographed by Kay Cole
Music Director: Marc Ellis

Through December 13

NoHo Arts Center
11136 Magnolia Boulevard
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tickets: 323-960-7773 or www.plays411.com/REUNION


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