Strong Cast In 'Copa'

Theater Review

Summer Garden Theater Production Of Manilow Show Is Perfect Way To End Season

August 16, 2009|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre capped its season with Barry Manilow's "Copacabana," a fast-paced show-within-a-show that is light on plot and heavy on music. It was originally a television special in 1985, and then a stage production in 1991. It was spawned from the lyrics of Manilow's 1978 hit single, and proved an ideal choice to complete ASGT's 2009 season.

Smartly directed by Jerry Vess, "Copacabana" immediately draws the audience into the story of 1970s songwriter Stephen, who is trying out song ideas in his head as he prepares to celebrate his sixth wedding anniversary with his wife, Samantha.

Stephen soon drifts into a 1940s movie musical plot, where he becomes Tony, a struggling songwriter among similarly struggling show folks working at New York's Copacabana nightclub.

In Summer Garden's production, music director Ken Kimble serves as pianist and conductor to 10 onstage musicians who bring Manilow's pleasant score to life.

Choreographer Katie Harrington's inspired choreography captures MGM's famous Technicolor musicals, as do Elizabeth Hudson's attractive costumes.

As the song says, "music and passion were always in fashion at the Copa," where we meet Tulsa, Okla., arrival and soon-to-be showgirl Lola La Mar (Nicole Anderson), bartender/budding songwriter Tony (Nathan Bowen), former Copa dancer and now cigarette girl Gladys Murphy (Emily Sergo), Copa club owner Sam Silver (John Cestone), rival nightclub owner Rico Castelli (Kevin Wallace) and his soon-to-be ex-headliner Conchita Alvarez (Alicia Sweeney).

Loosely based on Manilow's hit song about showgirl Lola, the plot darkens as she is noticed by mobster/Cuban club owner Rico, who drugs and drags Lola off to Cuba as a replacement for the aging Conchita.

Tony and Sam later rescue Lola, and along the way the audience enjoys catchy tunes like Lola's "Who Needs to Dream" and Tony's "Sweet Heaven," along with bright dance routines - some, like "Bolero D'Amore," with a Latin flavor.

Although the plot is light, the tunes are bright, opening with "Copacabana" and following with "Dancing Fool" and "Sweet Heaven," Next is Lola's auditioning tune, "Man Wanted," which changes from old-fashioned torch song to a bright up-tempo version that wins Lola the job.

Smartly transitioning from Oklahoma farm girl to New York Copa girl, Anderson proves vocally up to the challenge and equally adept with the demanding footwork. In her ASGT debut, she charms the audience, looks great in every costume, and conveys impressive acting skills in the dual roles of Lola and Stephen's wife, Samantha.

As Samantha's husband, Stephen, and Lola's love interest, Tony, Bowen delivers another stellar performance. Seen in last season's "On the Town" and this season in "All Shook Up," Bowen maintains his good-natured energetic image while continuing to grow as a leading song-and-dance man, impressive in the demanding "Dancing Fool" and bringing nostalgic warmth to ballads "Who Needs to Dream" and "Sweet Heaven." As Tony and Stephen, Bowen has great chemistry with Anderson's Lola and Samantha.

Sergo makes a strong ASGT debut as street-smart Gladys, belting songs with verve while displaying strong acting, dancing and comedic skills.

Cestone is also a strong ASGT debuting actor as club owner Sam. He is a commanding presence who makes the most of his unattractive wig's comic potential, rotating it and retrieving it adroitly and letting it fall from his bald pate to get even bigger laughs. Cestone is a gruff, lovable and funny Sam Silver.

ASGT favorite Sweeney brilliantly brings drama and pathos to the role of aging showgirl Conchita, elevating her scenes with Lola and Rico into compelling drama and bringing flawless grace in her Latin dance moves.

And Wallace is properly evil as Cuban mobster and rival club owner Rico.

Two outstanding Copa girls deserve praise: Amanda Cimaglia commands attention by her arresting stage presence and formidable dance skills, and Morgan Christina, who impressed earlier as Tiger Lily in Children's Theatre's "Peter Pan" last season, proves to be a stand-out dancer in this first-rate company.

If you go

"Copacabana" continues Thursdays-Sundays through Sept. 5. Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students and seniors and groups of 20. To reserve seats, call the box office at 410-268-9212 or go to summergarden.com.

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