Children of a Loesser God

Director-choreographer Michael Barnard, who has helmed a disproportionately high percentage of the Valley's most successful theatrical endeavors over the years, rarely takes chances when it comes to casting, especially for a musical. So it's no surprise that he's managed to attract the best available performers for Perfectly Frank, a fast-paced musical revue paying homage to composer-lyricist Frank Loesser that wraps up its run this weekend at Actors Theatre of Phoenix.

Seasoned Valley dramaphiles will recognize this as a partial Who's Who of the local theatre scene--and will expect big things from ATOP. They probably won't be disappointed.

Moments before the show began on opening night, a well-fed playgoer directly in front of us abruptly lurched from her seat as it collapsed under her weight. Undaunted, she simply claimed an empty one nearby. We mention this because it was just about the only thing that went wrong all evening--and even it was pretty funny.

In the show, funniest of all is ATOP actor-in-residence Bob Sorenson. His highly adaptable features, form and voice have been showcased in dozens of local productions in recent years. But here, Sorenson gets to play himself--or rather, a whimsically overblown stage version of himself--by addressing the audience informally between some of the musical numbers to enthusiastically impart little-known biographical tidbits about composer Loesser. All the while, his fellow thespians changing in the wings loudly encourage him to shut up and grouse to each other that his "impromptu" spoutings of dry historical data are interrupting the flow of their show. In mock exasperation, his "impatient" castmates later rush out and truss Sorenson up, and petite blonde Shawn Natalie Fields--a former gymnast--tosses him over her shoulder and carries him, babbling all the while, off-stage.

Thus discarding most of the boring background filler, Perfectly Frank gets right on with the music. Though one of Broadway's lesser-known tunesmiths, Loesser did turn out the hit musicals Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. And he penned hundreds of songs, dozens of which became pop standards. In this revue, the tunes are grouped by genre--military, romantic, comical, theatrical and so on.

The show starts with Sorenson doing a hunt-and-tap toe-noodling of a few bars of "Heart and Soul" across a huge, stylized piano keyboard that swirls sinuously over the floor and up the walls of designer Judy Walsh's spiffy, multilevel set. A barrage of militaristic anthems and love songs follows, including "Fugue for Tin Horns" and "Praise the Lord (And Pass the Ammunition)." This sequence rises to a thunderous climax with "Some Like It Hot," a choreographic highlight of the evening. That vigorous number features three whirling, drumstick-wielding dancers who beat up a Gene Krupa-style storm on steel drums.

Valley stage-hopper Robyn Ferracane--who never seems to be out of work--deftly generates laughs with the sniffle-nosed "Adelaid's Lament" and waxes pensive in "Can't Get Out of This Mood." And perennial Black Theatre Trouper Sybil Harris croons several emotional solos with gusto, most notably "Where Are You?" and "Never Will I Marry."

Comic actress/vocalist Kathy Fitzgerald is probably best known in these parts for her zany singing role as a soap-opera addict who gorges on Hostess Snowballs while arguing with her TV set in Actors Lab Arizona's berserk runaway hit, Six Women With Brain Death or Expiring Minds Want To Know. (It's still playing, with several new cast members.) Perfectly Frank allows Fitzgerald to further demonstrate her comic prowess and powerful lungs, particularly in "Rumble, Rumble, Rumble." In that hilarious tune--about a tormented woman driven to dementia by her upstairs neighbor's ceaseless piano practice--Fitzgerald evokes images of a frenzied Carol Burnett.

Long-time Valley nightclub and stage performer Michael Collins and Chicago-born newcomer Rick Almassey teamed up last season as half the male cast of Theatre One's Barnard-directed hit Angry Housewives--and the pair worked with Frank castmate Ferracane in ATOP's recent rendition of Tuck Everlasting. Here, Collins shines in the solo spotlight for "Roseanna" and "Joey" and performs a smooth love duet with Harris in "My Heart Is So Full of You." Almassey makes the most of his big moment, which comes with "I Believe in You"--that self-centered ode to the mirror from How To Succeed. . . . These two men join forces for "Guys and Dolls," and the other two make it an effective quartet for "Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By)."

Local stage workhorse Mark Hendel, who has hoofed and sung in countless musicals and acted in a couple of dramas as well, adds considerable vigor here with both his singing and showy footwork--especially in the solo "Once in Love With Amy."

Any stage retrospective of a composer's work can be difficult to mount--there's always the danger of bogging down into tedious biography or string-o'-songs overkill. Perfectly Frank neatly avoids these pitfalls. ATOP, Barnard and their blue-ribbon cast make it, frankly, close to perfect.

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Robert X. Planet