A formulaic and predictable but tuneful and generally enjoyable piece of retro melodramatic fluff, Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” should bring solace to older road punters who decry the loss of the traditional mores of the American musical theater. In need of a healthier shot of irony, this is no show for progressives and both book and choreography badly need expansion and revision. Still, generous central performances and catchy melodies make this touring attraction a smart, fast-paced booking for indie presenters in small- and medium-sized markets looking to avoid consumer resistance to revival-heavy season slates.
As long as no one gets any dumb ideas about parading this “42nd Street” redux before New York critics, Lola the showgirl should be able to sashay down the road for years with profitable impunity. Manilow, a brilliant songwriter with a great deal to offer the American musical theater, surely knows he would be best advised to stake his Broadway chips on the upcoming “Harmony.” But many of his hinterland fans will love his “Copacabana,” performed in full during the bows in Megamix disco style.
Since it was penned for his triple-platinum “Even Now” album in 1977, “Copacabana” has been a singular cash cow, even by Manilow’s lofty standards. Penned with Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman (the trio also share book and lyrics credits for the show), the single quickly went gold and also attracted the attention of Dick Clark, who talked the creators into expanding the heavily narrative lyric into a TV special. That spawned a live version of the tale at Caesar’s in Atlantic City, which in turned fathered a long-running London and U.K. full-length touring show (the Brits always were especially sweet on this song). This latest incarnation is based on the West End attraction but has been given a thorough overhaul — albeit not quite thorough enough — with the American market in mind.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this show is that it is only very loosely based on the original lyric. Presumably reluctant to impose a washed-up, alcoholic showgirl on auds looking for sparkle and bangles, the trio nixed the dark second verse of the number (the one in which Lola finds herself replaced by house music).
Instead, this homespun Lola (played by Darcie Robert) becomes the standard aspiring gypsy, just arrived in town from “Tulsa, Oklanowhere.” After some comic business as the naive Okie does bad auditions up and down Broadway, she’s groomed for her Copa audition by Brooklynesque barkeep/composer Tony (Franc D’Ambrosio) and given lessons in life by street-smart Gladys (Beth McVey), ex-dancer, now cigarette seller. After wowing Sam, the Copa’s grumpy-but-decent owner (Gavin MacLeod of “The Love Boat” fame), Lola gets her heart’s desire and become a Copa girl.
Sadly, though, she quickly attracts the attention of mobster Rico (Philip Hernandez) who drugs her and whisks her off to Cuba. Rico sees Lola as a potential show/bedroom replacement for exotic but aging Conchita (Terry Burrell), star of the Tropicana in Havana. Right on 10:15, Tony and Charlie show up to rescue Lola.
To try and give the piece something more than this traditional turn of events, the authors have written an outer frame, in which a contemporary songwriter (also played by D’Ambrosio) is trying to pen a ditty and fend off the attentions of his wife (also played by Roberts). It’s this potentially viable frame that needs the most work.
Currently, both dialogue and situation are terribly stilted — the climax asks the audience to buy the absurd notion that the songsmith cannot recognize his wife. The problems could easily be fixed with some script revisions — especially if the opening domestic and creative situation was given more urgency and gravitas.
Elsewhere, the book needs an overhaul. A cheap anti-gay gag may have gotten yuks in London but plays poorly here. And the character of Conchita is badly underwritten. Especially in a show with so much battering of women, both she and the second act could use an additional number in which she declares her independence from nasty old Rico (the scene goes begging and the too-short show needs some more musical oomph).
Otherwise, the hummable score is very pleasant (Manilow devotees will recognize his “Sweet Heaven” but otherwise will find a number of unfamiliar but pleasing numbers).
It would also do some good to ask Wayne Cilento to boost the show’s choreographic chops. In such an obvious vehicle, dance is terribly underutilized at this stage in the juncture.
Scenically, the piece is classy but no jaw-dropping spectacle (although David C. Woolard’s costumes are really splendid). The insufficiently glamorous Copa, in particular, could use some scenic expansion.
Backed by an attractive, hard-working ensemble, the comic players — especially D’Ambrosio and McVey — are fine. Although vocally splendid, D’Ambrosio seems a tad disconnected from the whole enterprise.
That’s not at all the case with Roberts. The biggest pleasure of the evening, her gutsy, honest lead performance fleshes out this potentially cardboard character. A road vet, Roberts missed a shot at Broadway glory with “Busker’s Alley” (or whatever it was finally called) when Tommy Tune broke his leg. It probably won’t be as Lola, but Roberts deserves another Gotham shot.