L.A. Theater Review: ‘Empire The Musical,’ Aiming for Broadway

Empire musical review
Michael Lamont

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.

L.A. Theater Review: 'Empire The Musical,' Aiming for Broadway

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, La Mirada, CA; 1,251 seats; $70 top. Opened Jan. 23, 2016; runs through Feb. 14. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production

A La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts & McCoy Rigby Entertainment, in association with Sue Vaccaro, Ricky Stevens & the Rivet Gang, presentation of a musical in two acts by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull.

Creative

Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Sets, David Gallo; costumes, Leon Wiebers; lighting, Jared A. Sayeg; sound, Philip G. Allen; projections, Gallo, Brad Peterson; music director, Sariva Goetz; orchestrations, Michael Starobin; flying sequence choreography, Paul Rubin; production stage manager, Jill Gold.

Cast

Kevin Earley, Stephanie Gibson, Charlotte Maltby, Michael McCormick, Tony Sheldon, Caleb Shaw, Katharine McDonough.

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  1. Martha-Sue says:

    Old fashioned. A few things were good, but my group did not really like this show. We were hoping it would be a good because one of our relatives worked at the Empire State Building for years. It does not hold your interest. Some parts are too slow.

  2. Keith P says:

    Saw the show in La Mirada and enjoyed it quite a bit. Superb choreography, excellent original music, strong performances, and clever set design.

    Maybe some have heard the story before, but I haven’t, and found it entertaining even if it was a bit light-hearted at times. But not every musical needs to be as dark as Rent; sometimes it’s nice to just enjoy a well-executed,feel-good show!

    Really hoping it gets picked up for a Broadway run; I think the New York background elements would be a perfect match and the show could develop a good following there.

  3. Jan says:

    Who wants to go see a play about the Empire State Building! This story has been told many times. Not interested!!!

  4. Katy says:

    An elaborate bore.

  5. Goldberg says:

    My aunt invests in plays on Broadway. She said she even gets the title as being a producer. She can BUY a tony award if one of her investments wins best play. Variety’is review of this play is exactly right. The set is the star. The story and music is nothing to rave about. My Aunt said “producers” will advertise only the positive part of reviews so people don’t read the negative parts. I thought this information should be shared.

  6. Gina Allen says:

    We all agreed the sets were very nice, but the play was boring. We cannot remember any of the songs. The story was okay, but not consistent. It was very old fashion. Maybe my Great Great Grandmother would have liked this show. We go to New York every year to see shows on Broadway. It is probably a marketing strategy saying go see it before it gets on Broadway (anyone can say that), but I can’t see this making it to the Big White Way. If it does, we will not spend any more money to see Empire the Musical again. We are excited about Cats coming back to Broadway.

  7. Michael Santora says:

    Old School. My friends and I did not enjoy this production.

  8. Richard F. says:

    I saw Empire on its opening night, Friday, Jan. 22. Variety’s review of the production is right on the money. The star of the show was definitely the large, movable set onto which a multitude of backdrops were projected. It was stunningly effective. However, with a couple of slight exceptions, the music was formulaic and forgettable (though the choreography was top notch), and the plot predictable in spite of potentially interesting subject matter. It was worth seeing just for the visual impact, and the show might have a shot at Broadway with some trimming and changes. But the road to the Great White Way can be long and circuitous.

  9. Susan says:

    Empire is a smart play based on historic events, but it is not a documentary. It is a large, old-fashioned musical production that tells you the story of two people and how they worked together to both dream and build. Frankie is an intelligent, “can-do” girl; my teen daughter likened her to Rosie in “Bye Bye Birdie” or Sarah Brown in “Guys and Dolls”. I found her vindication and the ending sweet and satisfying. Empire is about our desire to reach for greatness. The set design was innovative and beautifully done, and the music and dancing were wonderful, and yes, we left the theater humming the sets.

  10. Stuart says:

    Great period music and choreography with a feel good story that should inspire our work and workers today. The innovative digitized set is an absolute winner.

  11. Lisbeth says:

    Amazing original music, choreography, and story. Loved the entire production. Home run for entertainment! This is a piece you can feel good about taking your kids and your grandmother. The story is accurate and compelling. I can’t wait to see it again and again.

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