Toe-tapping time with Gershwin

Maui Chamber Orchestra ends season with rollicking, fun-filled ‘Crazy For You’

Caleb Teicher, one of the country’s finest tap dancers and choreographers, is the guest performer at the Maui Chamber Orchestra’s presentation of “Crazy For You,” music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. Tickets range from $27 to $55. To purchase tickets, call 242-6969 or order online at www.mauionstage.com. Note: The Sunday afternoon pre-concert “Talk Story with the Artists” has been cancelled to accommodate a dance warm-up. David Needleman photo

There have been a handful of turning-point moments on Broadway since the first musical debuted in 1866. One was the success of 26-year-old George M. Cohan’s “Little Johnny Jones” in 1904.

Cohan, universally regarded as the “King of Broadway,” kicked open the door for American composers, obliterating the concept that British musicals would always be more profitable.

The 30-something Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s “Hair” equally changed Broadway in the late 1960s by introducing the rock-musical genre.

Then there’s the 30-something Lin-Manuel Miranda whose monumental hip-hop musical, “Hamilton,” continues to take the theater world by storm since it debuted in 2016.

Coincidentally, all of those men were the children of immigrants. Two other 30-something sons of immigrants, George and Ira Gershwin, changed Broadway in the fall of 1930 with their first hit, “Girl Crazy.” This weekend the Maui Chamber Orchestra will present a concert version of “Crazy For You: The New Gershwin Musical,” which is based on “Girl Crazy,” at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.

Jerry Eiting (left) and Kirsten Otterson rehearsing their song for the Maui Chamber Orchestra’s “Crazy For You: The New Gershwin Musical.” Ally Shore photo

The reason “Girl Crazy” was a true crossroads moment in American entertainment history is because it not only cemented the Gershwins as the most popular American songwriters of their generation, but it also marked the Broadway debuts of Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers and a legendary orchestra made up of Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Glenn Miller — none of whom had yet started up their own big bands. It was also the first time Fred Astaire met Rogers, as Astaire was the choreographer of “Girl Crazy.” Not long after, Fred and Ginger were Hollywood bound and paired up in the 1933 film, “Flying Down to Rio.”

MCO debuted “Musicals in Concert” last May with “West Side Story.” Ally Shore also directed that production, with musical and orchestral direction by MCO conductor Robert E. Wills. I asked them why “Crazy For You” was chosen as the follow-up to their highly successful inaugural production.

” ‘West Side Story’ was such a big success and we needed to follow (up with) that quality of music,” said Wills. “Ally suggested Gershwin, and I trust her implicitly. She’s bloody brilliant at everything she does — from the initial idea, sets, projections, the blocking . . . everything,” Wills shared.

“There were a few reasons,” added Shore. “I felt that music should be the first criteria of our choice, and I believe Gershwin to be some of the greatest music ever written in the United States.

“Secondly, I felt that this choice would be fun and challenging for both the singers and orchestra. Lastly, Bob and I always saw this as a way to present a show that would most likely not be produced for one reason or another. The level of tap dance required to do this show properly seemed to place it in that category,” she concluded.

Jessica Bartlett (from left), Absalon Figueroa and Hina Claerbout in Alexander Academy Performing Company’s “The Little Mermaid” ballet. Chelsea Fine photo

I asked Shore how one adjusts a full-scale musical into concert format.

“The biggest adjustment, especially in the case of a Gershwin musical, is presenting the story through just the songs with very little dialog. In the case of ‘West Side Story,’ this was much easier because so much of the story is told in the songs. However, Gershwin musicals tend to have the libretto written after the songs,” she explained. “In this case it was written just to tie the songs together; thus the songs alone can’t really tell you the story. My solution was to write in a narrator to help guide the audience along.”

Wills spoke on the importance of the music in the piece.

“With (George) Gershwin, if you simply do exactly what he wrote, it’s brilliant. There are these extra quarter and eighth notes that are not always played. They add that additional ‘snap, crackle and pop’ to the original jazzy rhythm, which is why his music was so unique to the time. The players love that in a composer, and they’re having a ball performing it as written.”

Wills also shared some of the theatrical components unique to this weekend’s concerts.

“Ally’s set will look like the keyboard of a piano, but the black keys are also the New York skyline.”

Shore’s set will also have a thrust-stage specifically for tap dance solos.

“The big theatrical component to this particular musical-in-concert will be the introduction of our featured dancer,” said Shore. “We have brought in one of the finest tap dancers (and) choreographers in the country to perform. Caleb Teicher has been named one of Dance Magazine’s 2012 ’25 to Watch’ and, (was) recently, the winner of Dance Magazine’s ‘Best Emerging Choreographer’ in the 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards,” shared Shore.

The New Yorker calls Teicher, “One of the brightest lights in tap today.” The youthful Teicher’s additional credits include featured performances at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Paris Jazz Roots Dance Festival, Beantown Tapfest and the London production of “West Side Story,” along with its subsequent international tour.

“He will be choreographing and performing five original solo tap pieces, one ballroom piece with our own Dejah Juarez Padon and one group tap number featuring local dancers,” added Shore.

Billed as “the new Gershwin musical comedy” when it debuted in 1992, the Tony Award-winning “Crazy For You” incorporates a cornucopia of Gershwin standards such as “But Not for Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Shall We Dance,” “Slap That Bass,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and the title track.

The large cast features many of Maui’s most lauded musical theater actors including Dale Button, Laura Cole, Jerry Eiting, Kathryn Holtkamp, Sara Jelley, Leighanna Locke, Kirsten Otterson and Ross Young, in addition to Maui’s finest tappers. I asked Shore and Wills if they had a favorite number in the show.

“When it comes to Gershwin, it’s like having a favorite child, but I am a little partial to ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me,’ “ Shore said.

“It’s just one hit after another,” said Wills. “I am partial to the ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ marathon that ends the first act, but I also love the less familiar songs like ‘What Causes That’ and ‘I Can’t Be Bothered Now,’ “ he added.

Wills shared the genesis of MCO’s musicals-in-concert and what he foresees in its future.

“This will be a regular part of our season every May going forward,” he said. “Some musicals are simply not produced on Maui for good reason. ‘My Fair Lady’ could bankrupt a theater with the costumes alone. There are a bunch of musicals like that. Where are you going to get 60 guys that can sing to be in ‘Hello, Dolly!’? ‘Ragtime’ requires a large black cast.

“But, you can do them in concert. Music is not meant to be read in a library, it’s meant to be heard and performed live. I want people to want to get up and dance to this Gershwin music, tap their toes and walk out of the theater singing the songs. Regardless of whether you know this musical — come hear the music of it.”

Upcoming

Alexander Academy Performing Company presents “The Little Mermaid” ballet.

* Performances are at 6 p.m. June 1 and 2, with matinee performances at 2 p.m. June 2 and 3 at the ‘A’ali’ikuhonua Creative Arts Center on the Seabury Hall campus in Makawao. Tickets are $18 for adults, $10 for children ages 2 through 12, with VIP seats of $28 for adults and $17 for children. Tickets are available online at www.littlemermaidaapa.brownpapertickets.com or by calling (800) 838-3006. For more information, visit www.alexanderacademy.info.

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