The stunningly appointed “Empire The Musical,” world premiering at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (and no relation to the hit Fox series), gains strength from the entire company’s shared desire to erect the unprecedentedly tall Empire State Building, in stubborn defiance of the Great Depression. Alas, authors Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull willfully betray their storytelling judgment and taste, and what at intermission looks to be a sturdy edifice with a solid foundation turns into a fixer-upper. Better send in a crew to recalibrate, if the show’s “pre-Broadway” boast is to be more than a castle in the air.
First things first: This show is an unqualified visual triumph, with scenic designer David Gallo’s 25’x25’ upstage white panel providing an IMAX screen for his and Brad Peterson’s projection magic. Burnished vintage rotogravure images, in black & white and muted tints, serve as both backdrops and moving panoramas to send us all around Manhattan and then, when construction begins, up, up and up in acrophobia-inducing wonder.
Working windows and portals intersect with video to incorporate live actors (a recurring revolving-door effect consistently amuses). When characters stroll Gotham boulevards, the image behind them pulls back for a 3-D sense of receding space. In an appropriately Constructivist touch, the middle and lower tiers periodically open like dresser drawers to provide levels for dangling riveters.
It really is riveting, and for a while so is the saga of financier John Raskob (Tony Sheldon) and ex-Governor Al Smith (Michael McCormick), battling fashionable critics and newspaper skepticism to secure permissions. Suspense is generated though we’re well aware of the outcome, and fun is provided by the opposites-attract relationship of architect Michael Shaw (a likeable Kevin Earley) and blowsy associate Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson, fine dancer). He’s the dreamer, she the do-er; professional jealousies emerge… You know where this leads. It’d lead to more enjoyment if director Marcia Milgrom Dodge pulled back Gibson’s mugging and pratfalls.
Opening number “Heyday” evokes pre-Crash giddiness, choreographer Dodge expertly adapting Roaring Twenties dance into something fresh and unique. “Patch in Pittsburgh” reveals Frankie’s ability to grease a project’s wheels. Best of all is Dodge’s athletic construction team showing off for the ladies at “Lunch Time,” an exuberant reflection of character desires performed so high up it takes your breath away. Through it all, genius orchestrator Michael Starobin provides just enough period flavor.
Three workers slip off the roof at act’s end, and though the identity of the one who dies is telegraphed long before, he gets a somber commemoration by Mohawk Indian colleagues. (Sensitivity to Native Americans’ importance to the construction trade is one of the show’s best features.)
However, once Frankie gets canned as the mishap’s scapegoat, the building is incredibly, totally forgotten. Act II is given over to an irrelevant disguise subplot, which fools absolutely no one in the audience, and elaborate, broadly farcical efforts to get Frankie rehired about which we care not at all.
Later on we learn of five other construction deaths, the litany of which must have intensified pressure on all concerned. But does “Empire” explore Smith and Raskob’s coping with increased public opposition and private pain? Does Michael and Frankie’s love build as they collaborate to mollify all parties and keep the work going? Not for a moment. The moguls and Frankie get drunk and there are more pratfalls. The other victims are an afterthought. The tonal shift is mind-boggling.
A show can have its central romance, but you gotta stick with the one what brung ya, and what brung us this far is the building of the building. Abandoning that dramatic core in favor of a vulgar “Bullets Over Broadway” retread proves a catastrophic error, not to mention a betrayal of the real-life suffering which made the Empire State a reality. Belief in the people and the situation disappears, and you exit — as the old joke used to go — humming the sets.