By Pam Harbaugh
Cocoa Village Playhouse sets the stage with what could evolve into a smash “jukebox musical” with the world premiere of Tony Macaulay’s fun, colorful and engaging “Build Me Up Buttercup: The Musical.”
With the appeal of big musicals like “Mamma Mia!” and “Jersey Boys,” the theater is a perfect outlet to relive the ’60s and ’70s with tunes like “Don’t Give Up On Us Baby,” “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get To Sleep At All” — and of course, “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
Here, though, Macaulay serves as not only composer, but librettist whose storyline is engaging but simple enough to let the music shine. It is basically, boy loves girl, loses girl, gets girl back. Wisely, Macaulay has also written in two subplots adding texture to the story.
It opens on Shel Feldman, a big time record producer during the Los Angeles ’60s and ’70s music scene who could “smell a hit downwind from a cannery.” He sits at a lonely bar. A single beam of light shines on him. He begins reminiscing when pow! the scene blasts into a flashback. The fictional rock band Arizona performs to the screaming throngs and we are whisked back to a time of guys with long hair and hip-hugging bell bottoms and girls in knee-high boots and mini-skirts.
Director Anastacia Hawkins-Smith and her associate director, choreographer Pamela Larson, pull out all the stops for this opening number and send the audience, already ripe with expectancy, into as much of a frenzy as the screaming girls running down the aisles.
There are quite a few showstopping numbers in this production. Bathed in Daniel Hill’s most uninhibited to date array of costumes, the performers dance and wave and gyrate while Ian Cook’s active lighting design saturates the stage with vivid colors. Adding more energy is Cook’s scenic design of a gargantuan guitar rising up from the back of the stage.
As he does in his songwriting, Macaulay knows how to unfold a story on stage. Heartache, both of the musical and romantic varieties, weaves throughout the story in “Buttercup.” There are Josh, Arizona’s sexy lead singer, and his girlfriend, Suzy Butterfield; and Arizona singer/songwriter Andy and recording artist wannabe, Rosie Jones.
And, there is the conflict: Arizona has a secret which they have kept from Shel. Upping the ante are the no-good, cocaine snorting radio DJ, King Connelly and Doris Duggan, a society reporter who loves to dish the dirt (we’d like to see more of her).
The storyline revs up nicely when this conflict appears. In fact, it becomes such a savory spot, the rising action in the musical’s first act could be served well by introducing the conflict sooner. The second act brings a nice arc to both the story and characters. We get better acquainted with Andy, who, as played sympathetically by the sweet-voiced James Spiva, nearly steals the show. With Hayley VerValin as Rosie Jones, their quiet, heartfelt duet “We Can Be Dreamers,” is a highlight.
Lawrence Mazza, always such a treat on stage, brings great energy and flair to Josh. And Lisa-Marie Rhodes is a standout as Suzy, especially in “Don’t Give Up on Us.” As Shel, Rick Roach is a delight. He has such stage ease, especially on opening night when a stage prop fell in half allowing him to turn the live theater mishap into a great little comic bit.
But watch out for Chris Walker, who, as the minor character Rehab, brings out the real grist of the zeitgeist. Walker has all the moves, the funky nuances, the perfect “Rowan and Martin Laugh-In” double take. In all, he shines. Indeed, he is just so perfect in this show that he has been awarded the plum prize — singing lead in “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
Other standouts include Stephan Snyder as King Connelly. He is funny and has a great voice which is suited perfectly to “Baby, Now I’ve Found You.” (Surprise, although he’s long been a singer, this is his first time in a theatrical production.)
Kudos to Cass Stark as Mrs. Feldman, Shel’s interfering mother, and her neighbor Mrs. Birmbaum, played by a very funny and understated Sharon Metz. And, credit also to the outstanding ensemble, most of whom have enjoyed major roles in previous Cocoa Village Playhouse productions. They prove how important an ensemble is in setting mood and advancing action.
Big, big credit goes to music director and conductor J. Thomas Black, Jr. He worked with Macaulay on the arrangements and orchestration of the music, much of it new works by Macaulay. Simply put, it sails flawlessly from beginning to end. The frequently reprised song “It’s a Dog-Eat-Scumbag World” is bold, rocking, solidly theatrical from first beat to last.
In the program, Macaulay, ever the professional, credits Mike D’Abo (co-writer of the song “Build Me Up Buttercup”), Barry Mason (co-writer of “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”) and Geoff Stephens (co-writer of “Silver Lady.”)
This is just the first step in Macaulay’s “Build Me Up Buttercup: The Musical.” A playwright, librettist, composer and/or lyricist needs to see their works on stage. They need to find out what works, what needs to be trimmed, what the audience swoons for. Yes, the first act has a low ebb with some “darlings” that could be easily “murdered” (writer-speak for editing). But the bottom line is “Build Me Up Buttercup: The Musical” is all about Macaulay’s music and the sympathetic, loveable characters he has created. No doubt at all, this has all the ingredients for a smash hit jukebox musical.
It’s so thrilling to see Macaulay bringing his deep talent to the stage. The only thing is it makes us all hungry for even more. He makes Brevard very proud to call him “our adopted son.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Build Me Up Buttercup: The Musical” runs through Feb. 23 at Cocoa Village Playhouse, 300 Brevard Ave., Cocoa. Tickets range from $18 to $31. Call 321-636-5050 or visit www.cocoavillageplayhouse.com.