Chad Doreck, Suzanne Petrela and Tim Martin Gleason star in "Serrano The Musical," at the Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood. Photo: Brian McCarthy
Gotta sing, gotta dance. That's not just a familiar old lyric. It's also a thumbnail summary of the impulse behind musicals. Sometimes, spoken language just won't suffice. So the characters sing and dance.
One of two musicals that opened in LA County over the weekend, "Billy Elliot," could serve as Exhibit A for this expression of otherwise repressed emotion through music. Another new musical, "Serrano," is trying to serve as Exhibit B but isn't quite there yet.
"Billy Elliott" passed through Hollywood as part of a Broadway tour in 2012, but La Mirada Theatre is offering the Tony-winning show's first home-grown LA production. Meanwhile, "Serrano" is undergoing its first production anywhere, at the little Matrix Theatre on Melrose.
Before it became a stage musical, "Billy Elliot" was a well-regarded film. Yet in retrospect, it's hard to believe that it wasn't always intended as a stage musical - it's about a boy who defies the gloomy coal-mining culture in northern England and its notions of proper gender roles in order to pursue a ballet career. "Gotta dance" doesn't seem at all artificial in this situation.
Elton John wrote the music. The original screenwriter Lee Hall, who hails from the area where the story is set, wrote the libretto and lyrics. Despite John's potential glitz factor and the West End/Broadway trappings of Stephen Daldry's original staging, "Billy Elliot" manages to make us believe in its vision of its depressed social milieu in the mid-'80s, when the miners went on strike against the nationalized coal industry.
Indeed (spoiler alert), although Billy escapes what probably would have been a sad fate in a dying industry, and although we can temporarily bask in the warmth of seeing his own community helping him get out, the creators of the show don't pretend that anyone else is likely to dance his or her way out of town. We feel good about Billy, but we also care about the people he is about to leave behind.
Director Brian Kite, choreographer Dana Solimando, musical director John Glaudini, a stellar design team and a cast of 39 (!) honor the show's grittier roots as well as its polish and professionalism. Mitchell Tobin, a veteran of the show's national and international tour and its London production, shines in one of the most challenging starring roles ever for a young teenager. But the rest of the cast includes a number of familiar LA stage actors who appear to be right at home in these roles as well, led by Vicki Lewis as Billy's teacher and David Atkinson of Hollywood's Actors Co-op as Billy's dad. "Billy Elliot" is yet another excellent reason for Angelenos to head down the 5 to La Mirada.
"Serrano" is similar to "Billy Elliot" in some unexpected ways. Both musicals are about male protagonists who feel somewhat alienated from their own society, and both of these protagonists have male friends who might be even more alienated -- considering that these best friend characters, in both shows, enjoy cross-dressing.
"Serrano," however, doesn't feel nearly as organically created as "Billy Elliot." It's a modern American adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1897 classic, "Cyrano de Bergerac" - which was, of course, set in an even earlier era, the 17th century, and in a different country, France. "Serrano" is set in a particular subculture within American society - the organized crime families within Little Italy, New York. In some ways "Serrano" is as close to "The Sopranos" - but with a much lighter heart - as it is to "Cyrano."
The title character (Tim Michael Gleason) is a grown-up mob lieutenant. Like Cyrano, he has a sharply protruding nose and a similar sense of style, refinement and wit. Apparently he sometimes uses violence in his job, just as Cyrano himself was obligated to fight in war, but he isn't comfortable with those responsibilities.
In the show's only scene with any mob-style mayhem, Serrano allows a designated target to avoid death, instead choosing merely to chop off one of the guy's fingers. You might think this decision would get him in trouble, but there are no consequences from his boss (Peter Van Norden), who's a great fan of Serrano's. The boss also assigns him the task of training a young and handsome mob private (Chad Woreck) on how to woo a refined judge's daughter named Rosanna (Suzanne Petrela) - for dastardly ulterior motives, of course.
We can trace the outline of "Cyrano" in all of this, but it's not a particularly comfortable fit in Madeline Sunshine's book - or, perhaps, as a musical. The original Cyrano didn't need music and dance, because his spoken language was so dazzling. Serrano has a similar way with spoken words, so his need to break out in song or dance isn't nearly as strong as it is for young Billy Elliot, who lacks any trace of a gift for gab.
Of course, following the Cyrano model, there is one subject that Serrano can't openly discuss -- his own crush on Rosanna. The moments when he sings those sentiments to himself are highlights of the score (music by Robert Tepper) precisely because they're secrets to nearly everyone else.
Another problem in the book is the fact that two of the characters who would seemingly bring some gravitas to the story are slighted. The capo di tutti capi is initially played by the gifted Craig McEldowney, but the capo then virtually disappears as McEldowney is busy playing at least four other, more age-appropriate roles. And Rosanna's upright father, the judge, never even shows up on the stage. So no one is there to chide Rosanna about the potential pitfalls of socializing with criminals - in fact, her mother (Valerie Perri) seems to think it's a great idea.
I'm not arguing that "Serrano" is a waste of time and money. Director Joel Zwick and a contingent of fine musical theater actors create a mild sense of fun - and musicals have to be workshopped somewhere. It's better to spot the problems now than in a higher-budget production, and maybe they can be fixed. But the creators might ask themselves whether these characters "gotta" sing and dance... and if not, why not?
Lower photo: Vicki Lewis, Mitchell Tobin, Emily Frazier and Brooke Besikof in "Billy Elliot" at the La Mirada Theatre. Photo: Michael Lamont