I’d heard rapturous things about Transcendence Theatre, a company that each summer, in Jack London State Park in the heart of Wine Country, mounts a musical revue utilizing young actors who have had some success on Broadway, national tours, or important regional productions, but aren’t yet big names. The venue, among the ruins of a 19th century winery and Jack London’s Beauty Ranch, where he spent the last years of his life, is spectacular. Picnicking is allowed beforehand, and local wineries offer selected varietals. The show begins just as the sun sets on the vineyards behind the stage, and swallows flit in the air above. Each ticket for the show adds on a $5 fee which goes directly to support the park. The management of the site is top notch; parking and other amenities are carefully thought out and executed by an army of staff and volunteers, despite the site’s remote location.
This year’s artistic presentation is hopefully named “Stairway to Paradise,” after the Gershwin song “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” The show starts with a “smooth jazz” version of Sondheim’s “Sunday” (from Sunday in the Park with George), followed by a mash-up of “Brand New Day” from The Wiz and “Beautiful City” from Godspell. Uh-oh. You hear instrumental snippets of the Gershwin tune, but no one ever sings it. And if you’re wondering what those first three numbers have to do with that title, you’ll be completely perplexed by what follows, Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Indeed, all the song choices, driven by the show’s director and choreographer, Tony Gonzalez, seem as if they were picked out of a hat, contemporary pop and rock mixed up with (mostly) modern and (some) classic Broadway numbers. The program explains the rationale for six of them (why only six?) with blather about life’s journey, a topic generic enough that it could include any song ever written. (A woeful sample, discussing “A Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific: “This song is about getting out of your head and not being afraid to share who you truly are, and how you feel about today.”) The worst choices are the context-heavy songs provided with no context, like Jason Robert Brown’s “Moving Too Fast” from The Last Five Years (perplexingly presented in medley with “Feelin’ Groovy”), and Drew Gasparini’s “A Little Bit,” from an obscure musical Crazy, Just Like Me. (The latter song, about a young man leaving his mother a voice mail message in which he confesses he’s gay, Gonzalez helpfully follows with a recorded voiceover ostensibly from the character’s mother saying, “I love you unconditionally,” which of course elicits applause and “aws” from the audience. As if the song didn’t contain enough clichés on its own.)
I’ve borrowed the title for this review from a David Foster Wallace article about a cruise ship experience. It’s especially apt because the evening has the feel of a cruise ship show or an amusement park song-and-dance cheese-fest. It tries too hard, pushing false cheer and pouring on the cheap sentimentality by the bucketful. I cringed a number of times during the show, especially when the actors had to break off into unnecessary balletic pas de deux. (Gonzalez’s choreography is more successful when he apes Bob Fosse for “Cabaret” and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”)
In the first act, the show is stopped for a game of “Family Feud” with a group of performers facing off against the family of one of the performers, emceed by Transcendence co-executive director Brad Surosky. Why? The survey questions they’re asked have nothing to do with Broadway or singing or performing or anything. (One of the family members, when asked “Name something that makes you feel better” answered “Jesus Christ.”)
The cast is mostly adequate (as one would expect), with Luis Figueroa and David R. Gordon acquitting themselves the best. But only one performer, Shaleah Adkisson, has true star quality. Naturally, she isn’t given enough to do, and what she is assigned is head-scratching. Before singing Christine Lavin’s very funny “Air Conditioner,” she acts out an expurgated excerpt from a viral YouTube video by Krissy Chula, “It’s Hot as Hell.” (Neither Chula nor Lavin is credited in the program, a rather appalling oversight.) Other than that, Adkisson has a solo line here or there in the ensemble numbers, but nothing really befitting her relaxed, unforced, confident, and abundant talent. (She virtually alone refrains from pushing in a cast full of pushers.) That she doesn’t have more to do points to another problem: The cast is too large. Gonzalez could get away with almost halving the number of performers and each would be better able to make an impression. As it is, most of the performers get one solo and a few ensemble numbers, and by the end of the show you struggle to remember most of them.
Technically, Matt Smart’s music direction is quite good, Nils Erickson’s sound design supports the orchestra and the singers ably, but the lighting design, by Jeffrey Porter, relies too much on a follow spot and can leave a number’s supporting cast members underlit when they’re clearly meant to be seen.
The audience, predictably, ate up such cornball antics as singing “O, Sonoma” for “Oklahoma” (even though no other lyric was changed, rendering the song nonsensical) and couldn’t wait to leap to their feet in a standing ovation at the evening’s end. (You’d think by now I’d be used to being the lone dissenter in an adoring throng, but alas.) Given the huge success Transcendence has had appealing to the lowest common denominator there’s not much hope things will improve in the future. Transcendence, despite its vast resources of both money and talent, squanders it all on insipidness, belying its very name.
Transcendence Theatre’s Stairway to Paradise continues through July 1. For more information, go to http://www.transcendencetheatre.org.