Heritage Square's latest summer musical has no plot, but that's never a problem
The usual crew was on stage for A Musical: In Perfect Harmony: impresario T.J. Mullin, Rory Pierce, Annie Dwyer, Johnette Toye, Alex Crawford, Eric Weinstein and Randy Johnson, whose nimble piano playing is always a large part of the pleasure of going to Heritage Square Music Hall. Their energy was high and infectious, and they were as talented as ever. But one night this past weekend, the appreciative audience barely filled a third of the house.
I remember when this funky gem of a place was regularly packed with people who knew the cast members well enough to call out encouragement, jokes, suggestions, even the occasional insult — interruptions that the actors always handled with creativity and aplomb, turning the insults into laughter, extending an off-the-cuff quip into a side-splitting ten-minute routine. This is old-fashioned music-hall entertainment, and there have always been plenty of oldsters on hand to watch. But once there were also young people out on dates, and family groups comprising several generations, from Grandma and Grandpa to parents in their twenties with their own little kids in tow. I remember seeing a dressed-to-the-nines sixteen-year-old escorted to Heritage Square by her father as a birthday treat, and a four-year-old boy so excited by what was going on that he kept leaping from his seat, burbling with surprise and excitement, and flinging his arms into the air to reach for the actors. Clapping along to the music, wincing as the performers scanned the audience for someone to flirt with or haul up on stage, you always felt you were partying with genuine, down-home people — not the sort of theater-goers who attend a show because it's trendy or was a big hit on Broadway ten years ago.
Like all of Heritage's summer musicals, this latest production has almost no plot. The characters are supposed to be singers who formed their own group, the Dysfunctional Family, after aging out of the youth-oriented Up With People. They start out pretty dorky, with Pierce in horn-rimmed spectacles, Toye sporting an insanely determined smile, and everyone wearing neat, good-kid outfits: navy dresses and shirts, neatly pressed slacks. But they're trying to evolve and get hipper, so they try all kinds of styles and genres: rock, country, great old musicals, newer musicals, pretty ballads, television theme songs (including South Park), and their patented imitation of the Mamas and the Papas, with Dwyer in a fat suit as Mama Cass and the voices harmonizing beautifully on "Monday, Monday." Ironically the oldest number, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?," movingly sung by Mullin, seems utterly contemporary these days, as we teeter on the edge of what may be another Depression. I'd take the country song "Atheists Don't Got No Music" as an insult, except that the lyrics do allow us blues and rock and roll. Mullin and Dwyer sing a lovely folkie tune called "When You're Next to Me," from A Mighty Wind, and Crawford's deep baritone does full justice to "Old Man River."
You sense an effort by the troupe to do things a little differently, though. While the dialogue remains as cornball as ever, you don't get the guys' usual hilarious cross-dressing routine (I missed that glimpse of Pierce's shapely legs), and Dwyer doesn't race into the audience to assault bald men with sticky kisses. There are also fewer moments of jaw-dropping, I-can't-believe-I-saw-that insanity. All of which puts the focus nicely on the excellent singing and playing, the precision of the group numbers, and choreography that sometimes approaches real elegance.
I don't know what the future holds for the music hall and the odd theme park — part genuine Colorado history, part pure Disney — that serves as its home. Times and tastes change, and the prolonged economic slump hasn't done Heritage any favors. People are holding on to their money; gas is expensive; Denverites can find lots of entertainment closer to home. Though their energy's unflagging, the company is growing older. "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name," the group sang at one point, and I couldn't help hoping that was true, that the mighty winds will change, and the auditorium will fill up again with happy, laughing families.
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