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Celebration
Words by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 30, 2016

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Celebration is an unusual musical, but unusual musicals are what New Line Theatre does best.  Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1969 “experimental” musical is the latest production at this (pun intended) celebrated St. Louis theatre company, and true to form it’s a memorable, colorful, extremely well-sung production. I also can’t imagine better casting for this particular show.

The structure of this show is highly symbolic and allegorical. With four main characters basically representing the four seasons, it’s based on ancient legends and rituals and framed as the preparation for a New Year’s Eve party, ushering in a new year as a mysterious newcomer arrives to shake up the status quo. The master of ceremonies for this story is Potemkin (Kent Coffel), a rough-around-the-edges trickster who introduces the audience to the setting of the play, a somewhat bare city street corner that becomes the background for the ensuing celebration. The story continues as a newcomer arrives, identified only as “Orphan” (Sean Michael). Orphan grew up in a more rural setting, and he’s arrived ostensibly to save the land and garden where he grew up from a ruthless, filthy-rich businessman, William Rosebud Rich (Zachary Allen Farmer), who seems to own basically everything. He also meets Angel (Larissa White), an aspiring singer and actress who attracts the attentions of both Orphan and Rich, and although she’s attracted to Orphan, she sees Rich as more advantageous to furthering her own career goals.  The struggle between Orphan and Rich for power and influence is the central conflict, with Angel, Potemkin, and the chorus of revelers caught in the middle.

Structure-wise, this is an intriguing show, with memorable characters and a fairly straightforward theme, although the ending is extremely abrupt. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea of the woman being the main “prize” to be fought for among the two male adversaries. Still, it’s all symbolism, and the characters are well-realized. The atmosphere is very reminiscent of other shows from its era, especially musically, with memorable musical numbers such as the title song, “My Garden”, and “It’s You Who Makes Me Young.” New Line’s production also has the benefit of what I consider to be ideal casting of the main parts.

The casting is so great, in fact, that I can’t easily imagine who else could have played these roles. Coffel, as the crusty, wily, opportunistic and worldly-wise Potemkin, is full of energy and mischievous charm. He makes a fitting tour guide to the proceedings. Michael’s Orphan is amiable, appropriately naive and optimistic at first, but he also portrays a believable sense of growth and determination as the story progresses. He also has a great tenor voice that suits his songs particularly well. White, as Angel, is also excellent, with a strong voice and believable chemistry with Michael. She makes the character’s dilemma easier to believe. Last but definitely not least is Farmer, who hams it up with gleeful abandon as the slimy, entitled Rich, who clearly sees himself as the hero of the story even though his time is clearly running out. The interplay between all four characters is a major highlight of this production, and they are backed by an excellent ensemble of rowdy revelers to contribute to the overall primal atmosphere of the show.

Visually, this production is spectacular and richly detailed. The somewhat sparse set by Rob Lippert –essentially a series of stacked platforms with a trash can and street lamp at center–is an excellent backdrop for the action of the show, and Sarah Porter’s costumes are truly spectacular. From Rich’s shiny bathrobe and Donald Trump wig, to Orphan’s more simple rustic garb, to the outlandish costumes of Angel and the revelers, everything suits the production just right. Along with Kenneth Zinkl’s striking lighting, Scott L. Schoonover’s distinctive masks for the revelers, Michelle Sauer’s energetic choreography, and the excellent band led by Sarah Nelson, the theme and mood of the production is stylishly presented, lending much to the overall entertainment value of the production and augmenting the performances of the excellent cast.

Overall, I would say Celebration is an entertaining production inventively staged. It’s not for everyone, as like almost all of New Line’s shows, this is for mature audiences. For the most part, Celebration is a witty, energetic, and extremely well-cast show that’s well worth checking out.

Sean Michael, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Celebration at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until October 22, 2016.

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