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Review: Summer in the City is Just Hot Enough For Spring

I attended Stage West’s opening night production of Summer in the City on Thursday with three members of the Calgary Musicals MeetUp Group and a nearly full house. This show is a new creation by the team of Randy Johnson (also the director) and Canadian Howard Pechet (also the executive producer) and is billed as a musical revue, that is a “pop music explosion of some of the greatest songs and artists to come out of the 1960’s and early 1970’s”.

I would say it’s more of a concert than a revue, with almost 50 songs and medleys interspersed with short monologues between sets to talk about the artists.  Naturally, The Lovin’ Spoonful (who performed the title song) are featured prominently (8 songs), as are Gary Lewis and the Playboys (5 songs), The Mamas and The Papas Peter, Paul and Mary, The Monkees, The Association, and The (Young) Rascals (3 songs each). Dancing is also a big part of this show, as evidenced by the fact that choreographer, Jeff Dimitriou, and four of the ten cast members are alumni of CTV’s So You Think You Can Dance Canada (cancelled in 2011 after its fourth season, much to the chagrin of its fans).

This type of work is standard fare for Johnson and Pechet although they don’t always work together. Previous works by Johnson include One Night with Janis Joplin and Conway Twitty – The Man, The Music and the Legend. Previous works by Pechet include The British Invasion I & II, One Hit Wonders and Motown Gold, all of which have appeared at Stage West. This likely explains the lack of British and African-American artists in this show. Interestingly, both men are in the Guinness Book of World Records, Pechet for being the most prolific theatre producer and Johnson for “the most successful rock tour performed by an artist deceased” (Elvis: The Concert, featuring a virtual Elvis performing with his original band who performed live) – I wonder if they added a category just for that.

While “revues” like Summer in the City are popular with the traditional Stage West/cruise ship/Las Vegas type audience, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know they aren’t my thing, as I tend to like shows that have a plot, characters and original music. This show is no exception, although the performances by this young ensemble, most of whom are making their Stage West and/or professional debuts here, are strong enough. While there was no attempt to copy the look of the groups featured, like “tribute” groups generally do, they came pretty close on the sound front with Cass Elliott’s “Make Your Own Kind of Music” and The Association’s “Cherish.”

Highlights for me were Dale Miller’s rendition of Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” accompanied by some great ensemble dancing to end off Act I, Lisa Lennox’s performance of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”, Julian Peters’ soulful version of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” (complete with guitar and harmonica) and Matt Marr’s “Daydream Believer” (The Monkees). I also thought the dancing was one of the strengths of the show and in particular, the main female dancers, Bethany Kovarik and Jennifer Mote.

A show like this, however, would be nothing without the star talent behind the scenes, in this case Terry Gunvordahl’s fabulous (or should I say groovy?) lighting, Rebecca Toon’s costumes (she also did Lunchbox Theatre’s Fascinating Ladies and Stage West’s recent Motown Gold), and of course, “the band”, under the direction of first keyboard player Konrad Pluta, which literally took centre stage. In particular, guitarist Brad Steckel gets to have a lot of fun with this score and I have to give credit to music arranger Len Rhodes, who actually gets third billing in the programme after the creators, which tells you what an important role this plays in a show like this.

As a show, I’d say Summer in the City basically works, and has a nice mix of songs. Although I was born in 1960, this isn’t MY music, but I did grow up with it, thanks to two of my three older sisters who were teens then and had many of these 45’s and albums. As such, I frequently found myself bopping along to songs like The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” (written by Neil Diamond, who wrote a number of songs for them in his early years) and The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?”

I thought Act I could be trimmed and at times all the action and song/costume changes were a little overwhelming, even for the actors, who occasionally were still breathless when it came time to sing and stumbled through their monologues. Some of the songs also could have been transposed to better suit the vocal ranges of the singers. I question the decision to move Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” from the finale to the beginning of Act II, as it meant the show ended with Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, which is not the most familiar of songs. They might have done better just to reprise “Summer in the City” to finish off the show. My husband, who’s the rock/pop expert in the family, also noted the conspicuous absence of Credence Clearwater (“Proud Mary”, “Born on the Bayou, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” etc.) – it could be they couldn’t get the rights, of course – and that “Seasons in the Sun” was erroneously attributed to Canada’s The Poppy Family, when in fact, it was performed by Terry Jacks on his first solo album after the Poppy Family dropped that name. I was glad to see a nod to other Canadian artists with a Joni Mitchell – Neil Young – Steppenwolf – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young set, although I thought their lackluster performance of Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (by four men singing in unison) was the weakest in the show.

I haven’t seen any of Stage West’s other “revues”, so I don’t know how this compares, but if you are a child of the 60’s and enjoy listening to the songs of your youth (or a child of the 70’s and enjoy listening to songs of other peoples’ youths – there are only a few songs from the 70’s in the end), and are looking for a high-energy show that is more concert than theatre, you might like Summer in the City. And as far as the food goes, it’s one of the better buffets in town. While I tend to gravitate to the seafood bar, there’s something for everyone and the best allergy alerts I’ve seen anywhere. Get there early if you’re going on a busy night, because there tends to be a bottleneck (for parking and eating) when the doors open.

Summer in the City runs Tuesdays through Sundays until June 10th. Ticket prices range from $69 to $99 ($59 for Seniors 65+ on Wednesdays only). For more information, go to Stage West. The show will play at Stage West’s Toronto theatre later this year.

Note: While this show advertises itself as suitable for age 16+, they’re being awfully conservative. The only mildly adult content I noticed was one reference to the Mamas and the Papas getting stoned (this is the 60’s after all) and a sexy dance segment in “Along Came Mary”  – pretty tame stuff by modern standards. The other mystery to me is why they’re doing this show in the spring instead of in the summer … in the city  … in the summer … in the city …

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4 thoughts on “Review: Summer in the City is Just Hot Enough For Spring

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