Sunday, June 8, 2008

Theater Review: Gilligan’s Island: The Musical

A way to guarantee your production is going to get reviewed is to ask the reviewer to be a judge of a costume contest related to the show. That is exactly what Rover Dramawerks did with the regional premiere of Gilligan’s Island: The Musical. They encouraged patrons to come dressed as their favorite character of the show and at intermission they held the contest. I, the mayor of Plano and a Radio DJ were the judges. There was no way to name just one winner when four adorable kids aged 4 to 7 were dressed up as Gilligan, the Professor, Mary Ann and Ginger. It was a four way first prize. They were too cute. And so is the musical.

I must mention that I also serve on the Rover board. This doesn’t guarantee that I will give them a good review, though. I gave them a very tepid review early on in their season for the play Two Rooms. They also know if I am directly involved in anyway with their production I will not review them. I had nothing to do with Gilligan’s Island, hence why I am covering it. Now that I’ve made the disclaimer, read on.

The show is written by Sherwood Schwartz and Lloyd J. Schwartz. Yes, the same Sherwood Schwartz who penned the original series. This is the same hokey humor you come to expect from the TV show. The entire show is felt like it was cobbled together from various episodes, which is a good thing if you like the TV series. If you didn’t like the TV series, then there’s no way you’ll like this production. I happen to love the TV series. This show has strengths and some weaknesses. I’ll start off with the bad then mention the good.

The Costume Contest
The singing is a problem. The music is not particularly memorable except for the famous theme song. The songs are spoofs of various musical genres from musical theatre. Fortunately, even though this is a musical, the show’s success doesn’t depend on it; think of it as an extra value add-on. Some performers have lovely voices, while others don’t, but almost everyone would clam up before singing. It’s as if they were afraid to belt out the tunes. By belting I don’t mean singing the notes, but give us the lyrics, their meaning and making sure the back of the house could hear them. Most of the music should be performed as patter: the focus is on the words and the rhythm, not the melody. The performers forced themselves to sing the actual notes, but it was completely unnecessary because these are not great melody lines. Since they weren’t all trained, the effect was a bit like a deer in headlights. Their characters would drop as they sang, and one wasn’t sure if the songs were to be taken seriously or as a spoof they were too busy trying to hit the right notes and steps. I wanted to yell out: just speak the lyrics, quit trying to sing! The only song that truly worked is performed in Act 2 by the Professor in which he bemoans why he “can’t get them off the island.” Why did it work so well? Because Corey Whaley was at ease while performing it. More on him later.

The choreography was clever but, like the singing, the performers were too focused on being exact, so the choreography felt forced instead of organic and natural, and it killed part of the humor. I wanted to yell: chill, have fun with it! Perhaps Patsy M. Sadowski (Music Director) and Nancy Roberts Pistilli (Choreographer) rode them too hard and hence their performers came across as somewhat uncomfortable? I say this because their acting would drop the minute the singing and dancing would start. Hopefully as the run progresses the performers will relax into the musical aspect of the show and the production will improve.

Photo by Carol Rice

The acting was a bit inconsistent. Some were very strong others quite weak. Zachary Haber as the Headhunter/Alien (it’s a dual role) was, and there’s no way nice to say this, sloppy on stage. His prancing around got tiring and he attempted to be funny. To be funny one must be, not act it. He tried too hard. A little less would have gone further. Pull back! Thurston Howell, III played by Donald C. Cook suffered, though to a lesser extent, by his overacting. I know, you are probably wondering how someone could overact when it comes to Gilligan? The trick here is to give us the flavor of the character, not be the character, which the rest of the cast was able to pull off. The fun of the show is that these are actors portraying the roles created by other actors. Mimicry isn’t needed, in fact it detracts, by giving us the taste they inadvertently create commentary about the original characters, and that is where the true humor of the piece lies.

Corey Whaley, looks nothing like the original Professor except for maybe the sharing the same height. Yet he gives us a few of the ticks and mannerisms that Russell Johnson gave the Professor, but he never actually mimics the performance, thus making the character a scream to watch. He ends up stealing the show. When he sang, he knew the value was in the lyrics and not the melody so he sang accordingly and the audience responded with the biggest ovation of the evening. Nancy Lamb does the same with Lovey Howell.

Coby Cathey is doing his professional stage debut as Gilligan and he’s so cute I could bottle him up. He looks nothing like Bob Denver, yet he captures the flavor. My only small complaint was his songs. He too fell into the deer in headlights syndrome during these, except near the end. He relaxed into his last song and he pulled it off. Now he needs to do it throughout. Mr. Cathey has a physical dexterity that is fun to watch, and he has quite the burden to carry since the show is named after his character. He succeeds.

Photo by Carol Rice

Even though I’ve mentioned that Ms. Sadowski might be partially to blame for the singers’ performance, I have to credit her for constructing and directing a tight little musical band. The sound she got out from the four musicians frequently made it sound like it was a much larger orchestra. She has a strong musicality and understanding of what needed to happen. I’d be remiss in not mentioning this. They were quite the snazzy combo.

The set by Clint Alan Ray was fabulous! The costumes by Paula Wood were amazing! Carol Rice directed this with a strong feeling. She worked every bit of slapstick she could into the show. She also opted to make the show G rated. A lot of the lines carried a double entendre and as written this could have been a PG-13, but she made the choice to make this suitable for the entire family and pulled it off. The kids in the audience loved the show. You can definitely bring the family to this.

One thing that would be fun to see is how the show evolves during the run. Because of the way its written, there’s very much an ebb and flow of energy between the cast and the audience. It’s ripe for ad libs, and there were a few peppered here and there. As the run progresses and the actors become more settled into their characters (as it happens with every play) this show will exponentially grow and become much more dynamic and stronger. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again at the end of the run to see how it evolved.

Gilligan’s Island: The Musical will never be a great musical. But it is a lot of fun. Is this the best production? No. Will you have some fun and escape from the world for two hours? Yes. And for the price of admission it’s worth it.

Had they had mugs for sale, I would have bought one.

The show runs until June 28. Purchase tickets online or by calling 972-849-0358.