New Line Theatre's World Premiere of CELEBRATION Features Fantastic Performances

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The cast of CELEBRATION by New Line Theatre, Sept 29-Oct 22, 2016. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

The always adventurous New Line Theatre in St. Louis kicked off their 26th season with the world premiere of the recently revised show, CELEBRATION, a musical by the team of Tom Jones (no, not that one) and Harvey Schmidt. The team also wrote the book, lyrics and music for the better known show THE FANTASTICKS. The show has been revived off and on since its debut in 1969, and never really seemed to find its audience. Writer Tom Jones revised the ending and that’s the version New Line Co-Directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor are presenting through October 22, 2016 at the Marcelle Theatre in St. Louis’ Grand Center.

New Line director Scott Miller could hardly contain his excitement when I met him at the show. He said he has been waiting years to do this one. I am always eager to see what his troupe brings to the Marcelle’s black box stage, because it’s usually edgy and always intriguing. CELEBRATION did not disappoint. With a terrific cast and the always impeccable New Line Band (Sarah Nelson, D. Mike Bauer, Sue Goldford, Clancy Newell and Jake Stergos) supplying the aural ambiance alongside Rob Lippert’s simple but effective stage, this is a show that is a bit shocking, very funny and ultimately speaks volumes about the human condition.

The premise is fairly simple: it’s New Year’s Eve! The Revelers (Colin Dowd, Sarah Dowling, Christopher Lee, Todd “The Boss” Micali, Nellie Mitchell, Michelle Sauer and Kimi Short) are out drinking and carousing and making merry with what they got, and judging by their “found” attire that isn’t a whole lot. Enter Orphan, played by Sean Michael. He’s…well, he’s an orphan—Tom Jones didn’t waste time naming the boy anything more than that. He’s come to the big city to attempt to get the richest man in town, a man named Rich -- see the trend? -- played by Zachary Allen Farmer, to sign a piece of paper that would save the farm of the kindly old couple who raised Orphan after he was left on their doorstep. The Revelers mess with him a bit, being the new fish in their old, grimy pond, until he meets Potemkin (so much for naming characters based on their lot in life), played by Kent Coffel. Potemkin is something of a mountebank—equal parts con artist, magician and wise man. They soon encounter an erotic dancer named Angel (wearing angel wings, naturally) played by Larissa White. Angel and Orphan hit things off pretty fast, particularly after the young fella from the sticks gets a face full of Angel’s breasts. The press release I received a few weeks prior did mention “partial nudity,” which I had forgotten by show time. For the more delicately constituted, Larissa does wear an ample amount glitter or glittery pasties, perhaps, so while her breasts do run free, they’re not entire nude either. Rich, meanwhile, hasn’t had so much as a feeling in twenty years.  He meets Orphan and is soon reminded of his own humble beginnings. Then he meets Angel and finds renewed passion. He hires Potemkin to be his event coordinator and spares no expense to put on the most debauched bacchanal the big city has ever seen. Who gets the girl and lives happily ever after? Go see for yourself!

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel and Zachary Allen Farmer in New Line Theatre's CELEBRATION, Sept 29-Oct 22, 2016. Photo Credit: Jill Ritter Lindberg

 

Once again, Scott Miller’s cast is top-notch. Sean Michael, whom I’ve seen before in other New Line shows, has never sounded better and exhibited good chemistry with Larissa White. There were a couple of scenes where Orphan seemed somewhat rooted in place, and perhaps that’s what the script and the directors called for, though in other scenes Sean is dashing through the audience and around the set, or pantomiming Zachary in a wonderful mirror scene. I’m not saying it’s wrong by any means, just something I noted. All in all, it was a breakout performance by the multitalented Mr. Michael. As lovely as Larissa’s physical attributes are, her beautiful singing voice raised her star even higher, and she’s really blossoming as an actress. It was only a couple of seasons ago when I first encountered her as Bonnie in BONNIIE & CLYDE at New Line, and as good as she was then Larissa has only improved with each role. Kent Coffel is wonderful as Potemkin, bringing a smooth nonchalance to his narrator banter while maintaining a slight bit of menace to his character’s otherwise kind yet conniving ways. As soon as he appeared on stage I noted that he looked a bit like a down and out Mick Fleetwood, who always struck me as presumably charming but slightly creepy. Zachary Allen Farmer, as he often does, brings down the house with his turn as Rich. He’s two parts Dom DeLuise, one part Jackie Gleeson and one part Orson Welles circa CITIZEN KANE, with perhaps just a tiny pinch of early Marlon Brando. Even in the more poignant dramatic scenes he manages to put a bit of physical comedy or a perfectly delivered non sequitur into the moment. Get his awards all bright and shiny for this role!  I can’t think of another actor in St. Louis better suited to play this magnificent crazy bastard than Zachary.  

I don’t want to give away the ending, but underneath the glittering flesh and Farmer’s bravura performance there are some heady themes at work here. There’s Orphan’s love versus Angel’s (and Potemkin’s) ambition, Orphan’s poverty and innocence versus Rich’s wealth and world-weariness. Orphan and Angel’s youth vs Rich and Potemkin’s age. These are classic literary themes, some of which may not be completely evident at first.  That’s actually one of the things I liked the most in CELEBRATION—the musical element never gets in the way of the fable that Tom Jones is telling here. When you see as many musicals as I do, a bit more dialogue and acting in service to the story is a nice change of pace. I absolutely loved the ending, though it took me a little time to realize that I did. After CELEBRATION, I won’t confuse Tom Jones with that other guy (yeah, that one) again. I don’t know precisely what  was different about his original ending, but I’m extremely excited and honored to have been among the first few people in the world to see his revised version. I wouldn’t want to see it done any other way.

CELEBRATION runs September 29 through October 22, 2016 at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, in the Grand Center Arts District in downtown St. Louis. Please visit www.NewLineTheatre.com for more information about CELEBRATION and the rest of this season’s line-up. 

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0