Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Coming to America (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope’s ‘Coming To America’ is enjoyable

On the way out of Kalliope Stage after the opening night performance of ‘COMING TO AMERICA’ the woman in front of me said, “That was fun.” She was right, every once in a while it is nice to go to the theatre and just laugh a little, hear some good old-time songs, watch generally talented performers, and appreciate the creativity of a director who starts with a script and makes it into a visual reality.

James Hindman and Ray Roderick’s ‘COMING TO AMERICA,’ is having its world premiere at Kalliope. The duo authored ‘PETE ‘N’ KEELY,’ which garnered an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination and two Drama Desk mentions. That script was presented in 2004 at Kalliope.

Billed as a “poperetta,” ‘COMING TO AMERICA’ takes on the format of a vaudeville show with over 60 American standards and forgotten songs. This is no ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ or ‘CHORUS LINE.’ It is not even ‘TINTYPES’ which takes the same theme , but does it better. But, the production overcomes the trite script and the results are an enjoyable evening.

Songs include the likes of the well known “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “Over There,” “The Streets of New York,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “America the Beautiful.” It also features some ditties that few know including, “All the World Is Swaying,” “An Irish Husband,” “It Takes An Irishman to Make Love,” “Antonio,” “If You Don’t Want My Peaches,” and “Samiostisa.”

The singers/dancers/comedians portray a dozen people. Each character, who comes to this country in the early 1900s, is changed by America and America changes them.

The first segment examines the coming-to-America experience--the harrowing ship ride, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, landing at Ellis Island, and entering the US. The rest of the production centers on the becoming a “Yankee” experience.

Kimberly Koljat, portraying an Irish lass, sparkles. Her eyes glisten, her face glows. Her singing voice is excellent. She dances well and her characterizations are well developed. She won the audience with “Just You Watch My Step.”

Christopher Sena is Ambrose, an Italian. He is generally effective, but sings with a nasal quality. His version of “Everything in America is Ragtime” with Jaron Vesely was a show stopper.

Vesely portrays Yankel, a Jewish immigrant. He displays appealing stage presence in a charmingly boyish way. His versions of “Papirosen” and “Ephraham Played the Piano” were delightful. He is also an excellent dancer.

Beth Kirkpatrick has a full and vibrant voice which she displays well as the Swedish Pernilla . The audience gasped with awe as she hit her high notes. Her rendition of “Nobody Knows” was enchanting.

Jason Winfield, who sometimes sings flat, has some nice moments. His highlight number was “When I Lost You.”

Director Paul Gurgol, who is a master at inventing creative “shticks” to enhance acting scenes and dance sequences, does not disappoint. This is a staging, with much creative staging and choreography, that gives pleasure well beyond the over-used premise of the script.

Anthony Ruggiero, the pianist and musical director does an excellent job. Russ Borski’s set design creates the right mood, while his costume designs are impressive. Lance Switzer’s lighting adds the correct moods.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Forty percent of the people in the United States can trace their families through Ellis Island. Each of those descendants, and any others who appreciate a well-directed show with good singing and dancing, will enjoy Kalliope Stage’s ‘COMING TO AMERICA.’