TRAVELING “BROADWAY STYLE” SHOWS By: Kevin Thomas

It used to be, to see a Broadway show you had to go to Manhattan. Or when the touring version came to town, the great Broadway star was replaced by an average TV star.

Things have changed.

More and more shows are having pre-Broadway runs at theatres throughout the US, making it easier to see the Best of Broadway without the airfare and with high caliber talent.

One such musical, “9 to 5” is Broadway bound and currently playing in Los Angeles. In the recent trend of adapting movies into theatrical musicals, “9 to 5” is perhaps the most faithful to the source material. Surprisingly the show retains the fun dream sequence in which our three female leads plot the demise of their scoundrel boss  And the show is still packed full of witty lines from the movie like “I killed the boss, you don’t think they’ll fire me for a thing like that” or “I’m going to change you from a rooster to a hen in one shot.”  And, as a musical “9 to 5” is actually enriched with its songs, adding depth and poignancy to the characters.Allison Janney, of TV’s “West Wing,” is not a singer but does carry her tunes amicably and totally embodies the part of Violet Newstead, the real leader of the fictious Consolated Company in which she works hard for the money in a sexist 1980s world. Stephanie L. Block, so memorable as Liza Minnelli in Broadway’s “Boy from Oz,” does have the pipes to make any song a showstopper in the Jane Fonda role of Judy Bernly. Her character is a little bland (as in the movie) but she does have a few moments and knocks it out of the park with her big number “Get Out and Stay Out.” But the real treasure is Megan Hilty in the role of Doralee Rhodes, made famous by the show’s composer Dolly Parton in the original film. This role has more dimensions than even the movie. And while Hilty cannot outshine Parton, (who could?) you don’t miss her so much as Hilty offers depth and substances, which all comes out in her singing and quiet moments, with the song “Backwoods Barbie” perhaps being the highlight of all of the new songs.

Great support by Marc Kudisch as the sexiest, egotisitical, lying, hypocritical, bigoted boss and Kathy Fitzgerald about steals the show as his administrative assistant prove that you can get good theatre on the West Coast. When it hits Broadway in February, “9 to 5” in many ways will be written off as piece of fluff. But in today’s world, not every musical or show needs to have an important message. Sometimes fluff is exactly what you need. Follow its journey to New York on www.9to5themusical.com.

Another Broadway bound musical that played in the LA area is “Vanities,” directed by two-time Tony winning actress Judith Ivey. “Vanities” was first a play years ago and it seems to fare better as musical. For this show to succeed, it really needs a talented cast as it consists of just three characters. No one else. The good news is, our actresses –  Lauren Kennedy, Sarah Stiles, Anneliese van der Pol – all deliver.

In a story of three Texas friends going from high school through adulthood is really a tale we’ve all heard before, dealing with betrayal, death and envy. But the staging of the show and the multiple use of the vanities as lockers, shelves, cabinets  and walls really open up at the show. This combined with the interesting costume changes often done right on stage, add a little sparkle to the show. It’s funny to think that such a small thing can do a show wonders.

But most of the credit for this show succeeding is our three leads. They are totally believable as teens and then later as women in their 40s. Their voices, mannerisms and characterizations really seem to mature throughout the show. The one stand out of the cast is Stiles. Her delivery is very reminiscent of Megan Mullally on “Will & Grace” without the acid tongue or insulting barbs. And while you won’t remember many of the songs later, they were pleasant enough and helped the story move forward.  You just won’t be downloading any of the tunes to your iPod. See the show’s progress at www.vanitiesthemusical.com but it is scheduled to open on Broadway in February.

And while not Broadway bound (it already had a run off-Broadway) Southern California still has yet another worthwhile show, “Memphis.” If this ever makes it to your town, it is a must see. This has everything that a Broadway musical should have – great and fun songs, a good story and a terrific lead actor. Chad Kimball (pictured right) has been playing the part of fictions DJ Heuy Calhoon who brings black music to white radio for several years. And like Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” and Michael Crawford in “Phantom of the Opera,” Kimball must know this is the part of a life time and he has been with the show for over five years.

“Memphis” has tightened up a bit and gotten stronger over the years. There is a new solo, vibrant number for a supporting character, played by James Monroe Iglehart called “Big Love,” which gives someone else in the cast a chance to shine. To its discredit, “Memphis” does not have a website so we don’t know what’s next for it. Best way to keep up with the show is to search Wikipedia for “Memphis (musical).” But do seek it out.

And since this story is about traveling Broadway style shows, I must mention the new touring version of “Spring Awakening.” With its eight Tony awards including Best Musical of 2007, you would think a big show wouldn’t need much more press. But this is quite the exception. Not only because the touring cast is just as talented as anyone on Broadway, but this story is not your typical mainstream fare and ticket sales on tour have been lackluster.  For a show to succeed on Broadway or on tour, you need a safe story that doesn’t deal with controversial topics.  You have to think: what musical would people from Iowa see. And a few years back, one wouldn’t picture them attending the Boy George bio-show “Taboo” due to all the drag queens. And it’s right, that one reason the show failed.

But “Spring Awakening” is a great show with modern songs, even though set in 1890. But it deals with religion, sex education, homosexuality and promiscuity. People from middle America are not going to run to a show that has some nudity or that has a song called “Totally fucked.”

The story of “Spring Awakening” will stick with you for a long time. There’s even a scene about the consequences paid by someone whose mother sugar coats the story of the birds and the bees, leaving the teen not understanding the truth. So when “Spring Awakening” comes to your town, please seek it out. Check out the touring schedule at www.springawakening.com.

And as long as you’re seeking good theatre….

If in San Francisco, there are two really fun shows.

“Insignificant Others” has an open-ended run at San Francisco’s Pier 39 Theatre. It is truly an “only in San Francisco” experience as five friends move to San Francisco to begin their lives, exploring the city and their lifestyles. Some of the characters are straight, some are gay, all are fun. Truly a reflection of the San Francisco culture, “Insignificantt” is anything but. See www.isomusical.com.And speaking of something well suited for San Francisco, time is running out on “Jungle Red,” the drag musical parody of “The Women.” The timing of the show is very fortunate as it opened the same week the movie remake was released. In talking to the producers, this was accidentally as the movie opening date changed and they scheduled the show around famed drag performer Verla Jean Merman. And while Verla Jean gets more than her share of laughs in the role of bitchy husband stealing Crystal. But Trauma Flintstone is always a joy to behold in her multiple supporting roles. This show has wit, charm and campy, catchy tunes by Mark Sargent. Not all of the cast can carry a tune, though, and that weights it down a bit. If the show perhaps continues to off-Broadway, they should either cut out some of the songs or recast some of the supporting players who can’t sing. Markie de Sadie for example is hilarious as little Mary – that is until she sings.  This is the first production by the Big Gay Frat House and they really have a gem on their hand, provided things are tightened a bit. Encourage the production to continue via www.biggayfrathouse.com.