You still have three more chances to see the CYAC production of “Norman Rockwell’s American Paradise,” this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM at the WVSU Capitol Center Theater on Summers Street in Charleston. This is an amazing show. There isn’t a weak song in the production. “Paradise finds lyricist Dan Kehde and composer Mark Scarpelli hitting on all cylinders. The large cast doesn’t get lost as an ensemble due to the unique structure of the show.
Rather than follow a single narrative, “American Paradise” is a series of twenty-eight mini-musicals, each one bringing to life one of Rockwell’s classic paintings. One universal truth that is often ignored in theater, film and television is that brevity is the soul of wit. Freed from the burden of having to create a long-form musical theater experience (something Kehde and Scarpelli are quite adept at doing when they need to) Dan and Mark have crafted a wonderful revue of original songs, tied to some of the most iconic and memorable images of the 20th century. The segues between the numbers are clever and inventive, bridging the tone between the heavier songs and the lighter comic fair.
Each “mini-musical” is as much a masterpiece as the paintings on which they are based. There seriously isn’t a bum song in the lot. The show is held together by the silent presence of the painter himself (played by Nick Curnutte) on stage, directing the subjects of his paintings, which are projected above the stage during the songs.
The range of emotions in the paintings allows the show to go from deep drama to broad comedy to thoughtful commentary at the drop of a scrim.Written in a variety of mid-20th century musical styles, “American Paradise” will literally tug at your heartstrings in one moment, then threaten to make you wet yourself laughing the next.
There are so many standouts in the large cast that, as a reviewer, it’s a bit intimidating. I don’t want to leave anyone out. This is coupled with the fact that many of the roles are doubled, with different performers for different nights. This was done mainly to accommodate prom season, but it also shows off the remarkable depth of the talent pool at CYAC. I saw the show last Friday, so I’m basing my remarks on the cast from that performance.
Donnie Smith and Evan Wilson, who are first seen as plumbers before taking on other roles throughout the production, both demonstrate impressive vocal chops, along with the ability to deftly handle both dramatic and comic acting. Molly Means and Alicia Lewis, both of whom have appeared on Radio Free Charleston with songs from previous CYAC shows, display terrific singing and acting talents and have real star quality on stage. Eli Chambers also claims the stage as his own during his featured spots.
Shepherd Sims and Sarah Schliess may be the most dynamic pair of young talents to hit the Charleston stage in years. Featured together in the ridiculously cute song “First Love,” and also sprinkled throughout the show in other parts, these two pre-teens make a lasting impression.
On the opposite end of the age spectrum, Steve Melton does a great job in his two touching numbers, “Freedom From Want.” and “The,Christmas Reunion,” pulling off intense emotions with dignity and grace. Kat Johnson lends considerable support to the cast with her featured performances in “The Right To Know” and “Freedom To Worship.”
Sarah Mandirola is a real gem singing about her “Prom Dress.” Erin Martin, Jackie Cobb and Abby Rhodes shine in several featured roles. Maddie Gourevitch may well be the show’s “ringer” singing many difficult backing vocal parts while owning the stage as both an actress and singer in her featured turns, “My Harry James.” “Freedom From Fear” and “The Chars.” She proves that she can handle drama and comedy equally well.
Nik Tidquist is great in “The Tattooist,” a hilarious number about a Sailor with a girl in every port and a tattoo for each one of them. In a contender for “cutest song in the show,” Austin Thomas and Lauren Miller do a great job in “The Letterman.”
Bob Martin is hysterical as a father telling his son about the “Facts Of Life.” Also hysterical are Marranda Major and Evan Wilson in “Courting Couple At Midnight.”
Other notable performers are Joanna Miesner, Kate Tabor, Bennett Anderson, Shane Belcher, Samantha Oxley, Kirill Gura, Emily White and Tim Cooper. To be honest, it’d probably be easier just to print the cast list. Near the end of the show Kehde and Scarpelli join Chambers and Smith for a very funny Barbershop Quartet number.
People who know theater know how difficult it is to put together a show with a large cast. Compound that with the fact that there are so many potential star turns in “American Paradise” and that Kehde has assembled the show with his usual masochistically-short rehearsal schedule, and you have quite the accomplishment.
“Norman Rockwell’s American Paradise” is a two-and-one-half hour show that seems to fly by in minutes. It’s an amazing achievement, and one that the we are lucky to have originating from our area. I urge anyone who is a fan of musical theater, an admirer of Norman Rockwell, or a supporter of the local art and music scene to make the trek to the Capitol Center Theater to see this incredible show.
If You Go: Tickets are $9.50 for adults, %5.50 for Seniors and Students. The curtain goes up April 23-25 at 8 p.m. at the WVSU Capitol Center Theater. Call (304) 342-6522 for more information.