Retro Loud offers nostalgia both cheesy and sweet
In many years of faithful attendance at Heritage Square Music Hall, I have never seen T.J. Mullin lose control of an audience. Sure, he always gives the jokers in the seats some play, letting them interrupt or yell out a comment or two — but he was having serious trouble the night I attended Retro Loud. The reason? All of the audience members were holding black-and-white Charlie Chaplin masks over their faces and, aside from a few irrepressible guffaws, weren't responding to anything Mullin did or said. Every now and then, someone would start a chant of "Windsor, Windsor" that grew in intensity and volume while Mullin, who has headed this company for twenty years now, looked increasingly puzzled.
Unknown to him, fellow Heritage star Annie Dwyer had set up the entire evening as a party celebrating Mullin's sixtieth birthday. She'd bought out the house, sent invitations to the guests, arranged the seating, planned the masks, informed everyone that ice cream and cake awaited us after the performance, told Mullin that all the seats had been taken by the Windsor Construction Company.
It says something about Mullin that his well-wishers can fill up a 350-seat house with every age and demographic. There were spry young things and oldsters being helped to their seats, well-dressed middle-aged couples, working folk, hippie holdovers. Everyone swapped T. J. Mullin tales. Again and again, I heard the same story from different people: In life Mullin is quiet, shy, even boring. But put him on a stage or in front of a piano, and he springs to life.
It also says something about both Mullin and his company that Dwyer went to so much trouble and expense to put together this tribute. The on-stage chemistry between the two has always been extraordinary — Annie tends to get louder and more ferocious by the moment, while T.J. responds with quiet understatement. You couldn't call him a straight man, though, because when he does get into gear, he goes completely nuts: At the beginning of Retro Loud, for example, he does a grotesque imitation of extreme old age, puffing out his stomach and pulling the front of his pants up over it, sidling herky-jerky along the stage like a marionette that's taken control of its own strings. Most of the Heritage actors have been here forever, but even as I appreciated their smooth interaction, I wondered if they really got along outside the theater. (Sometimes you don't want to know about the real lives of performers you admire; it destroys the magic of the kiss if you've heard that the two leads actually detest each other.) But if these guys don't truly like each other, they're amazing fakers. And their joy in goofing off together affects their audience. Annie's tribute to T.J. was interrupted several times by people yelling out that they loved her, too.
Retro Loud is a compendium of songs based on the thinnest of plots, the latest in a series of Loud shows that started ten years ago. What keeps these evenings of oldies entertaining is the dual focus the cast brings to the material: Almost every number is a total spoof, utilizing cheap wigs, cheesy costumes, hamming, guys in drag. But you can also tell that the company members have picked tunes they really love, and their choreography and musicianship are strong. On "California Dreaming," you're simultaneously howling with laughter at Dwyer's antics as a fat-suited Mama Cass and appreciating the wistful words and lovely, nostalgic melody of the song. High points of the evening include Mullin as Elvis; Rory Pierce as Jim Morrison (this guy can raise huge laughs mincing around in a skirt and later mesmerize the women with his arrogant, black-leather-pants-clad moves on "Light My Fire"); Alex Crawford, clad in gold lamé, singing Hammer's "Can't Touch This"; Dwyer's takes on Janis Joplin and Tina Turner; and, finally, Johnette Toye, back after a two-year absence with a sizzling rendition of "These Boots Are Made for Walking." (Fine, Johnette, but don't let them walk you out of this place again.)
The beginnings of these Heritage Square shows are usually raggedy and low-key, so that the tightness and precision of the musical numbers can be startling. It's like watching a high-school talent show, my companion observed later — except with amazingly talented high-schoolers. You won't see exactly the same show I did; that was a moment in time that can never be re-created. But I promise that these folks will make you laugh, hum, clap and feel happily at home.
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