The Rich Forum at the Stamford Center for the Arts
"Empire," an ambitious new musical playing this week at the Rich Forum, surely has its plusses. For starters, it deals with the building of New York City's tallest skyscraper (tallest in the 1930s, that is), the Empire State Building. Secondly, it depicts some one falling to his death from the heights of that building. All of this touches a nerve, and comparisons to 9/11 are inevitable.
But "Empire" itself is a mixed bag. Book, music, and lyric--all written by a new team, Caroline Sherman and Bobby Hull-indeed have their charms. But one longs for a more dramatic story and more striking music, given the theme. And "Empire," with its overlong, repetitious first act, would certainly benefit from pruning.
The story focuses on a young architect, one Michael Shaw, who must design the building and be sure it is built in record time. Opposing him is Hilda Roberts, a girl reporter, whose news stories point out that the ridiculously high building, with its dirigible mooring on the roof, will not be good for the people of New York. After a worker is killed, falling from the high scaffolding, Michael blames himself for pushing the workers too hard, and drops out of the race. Only Hilda's inspired article supporting the construction (she has changed her view) brings him back. No surprises here. Inevitably, these two will reconcile, fall in love, and live happily ever after (as in any traditional musical). And along the way, two other love stories evolve-one between a black man and his doomed white wife, another between a woman building contractor and a news photographer.
The production, under the direction of Clayton Phillips, has its pros and cons, as does the book. On the good side is the imaginative choreography by Michael Lynch, aided by Sergio Trujillo. Consequently, the company numbers, with the well-trained dancers, offer the show's best moments. Those moments spring to life and help to create a sense of the times.
Moreover, the design team does a solid job, with sets by Randall Parsons, lighting by Kirk Bookman, costumes by Lynn Bowling, and sound by Shannon Slaton. Parsons' sets are particularly effective, with the sky-high scaffolding, and the final façade of the building.
But "Empire" fails most notably in its casting. The three romantic couples are totally mismatched. The boyish Perry Ojeda, playing Michael, is teamed up with Becca Ayers, a veritable Brunhilde. She looks as if she might take him out with a solid right hook to the face. And Lisa Datz and Robert Jason Jackson, as the inter-racial couple, are mismatched in terms of age, she appearing much younger than he. Finally, Sandy Mulvihill and Evan Pappas, as contractor and photographer, would hardly have fallen in love at first sight, as suggested. Though Mulvihill has good comedic skills, she is unconvincing as a love object, and seems to have wandered into the wrong show.
But Pappas himself is first-rate, incapable of a wrong move. And Lisa Datz, playing a Shakesperean girl-turned-boy gives a most appealing-in fact, memorable-performance. Others who acquit themselves nicely are Ojeda, Stephanie Lynge (as a ditsy secretary), and Vincent D'Elia (as a quarrelsome worker).
All told, one hopes that "Empire," indeed an earnest effort, sees more polishing, honing-and recasting-before it moves on to its next venue.
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 19, 2004