Empire the Musical

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater
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Empire the Musical is not to be confused with Empire, the television series. The TV program is a drama about ambition and the music industry. The Empire that is the focus of this review is a musical about ambition and architecture. Shortly before the Great Depression, in 1929, the idea of constructing a skyscraper that would in less than two years become the one of the seven man-made wonders of the modern world was a daring notion, ripe for drama, loaded with potential human conflict.

 

Nonetheless, those are the circumstances that surrounded the construction of the Empire State Building. And now Empire the Musical – onstage in a pre-Broadway run the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through February 14 – tells the story of the building that started out being called the Al Smith Building, after New York States’ popular former governor, who was once also a presidential candidate.

 

Though Empire had a brief run in a small theater in Hollywood in 2003, and there had been talk of moving the show to the Great White Way at the time, it didn’t happen. Now more than a decade later, under the keen direction and  inventive choreography of Marcia Milgrom Dodge (who was nominated for a Tony Award for her direction of Ragtime), Empire the Musical is again bound for Broadway.  With book, music, and lyrics by Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull, in two acts in approximately two hours and forty-five minutes, under the muscular musical direction of Sarvina Goetz, two dozen song and dance routines are delivered by an enthusiastic twenty-five member cast.

Like Ragtime, the characters in Empire are a blend of fictional and true-life people. Michael McCormick brings a cuddly charm to his portrayal of Al Smith. Tony Sheldon plays the dedicated real-life industrialist John J. Raskob. Their duet of "Moxie" brings a sly smile to the faces of those of us who witness their well-timed rendition.

The central characters of the show, however, are the fictional Frankie Peterson and Michael Shaw, ably played by the skilled Stephanie Gibson and the likable Kevin Early. Their duets – "In a Good Way" and "Falling into My Heart" – are heartfelt and performed with believability and commitment. And the acrobatic dance moves as executed by various ensemble members are extraordinary. They do summersaults, midair flips, and some gravity-defying moves that are jaw dropping feats.

What’s more, we learn about the so-called skywalkers – Mohawk Indians who were indispensable in the construction of this and other Big Apple skyscrapers. These unique construction experts are soulfully embodied by Richard Bulda, Gabriel Navarro, and Rodrigo Varandas

Though the show seems long and less than engaging at certain points (cutting some numbers to make the production more in the two- hour range would tighten the proceedings), the elements of the staging are impressive. David Gallo’s magnificent scenic design, as well as his collaboration with Brad Peterson on the design of the show’s memorable projections is remarkable. Additionally, Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting motif and Philip G. Allen’s sound design prove essential to this splendid show. What’s more, Leon Wiebers’ costuming offers an array of period styles and some colorful eye candy.

Empire the Musical continues its pre-Broadway staging through February 14 at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. The Theatre is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada. Evening performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, call (562) 994-9801 or (714) 994-6310. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.lamiradatheatre.com.