The Coronado–the perfect site for a history of the movie musical

The Coronado–the perfect site for a history of the movie musical

By By Georgia Pampel

By Georgia Pampel

Music Critic

How do you think up and produce a successful smash-hit show that will be remembered for years to come? A show that sends the audience home trying to tap-dance, and humming all their favorite tunes? Well, why don’t we examine the Mendelssohn Club’s final offering of the season, “Musicals II! Movie Memories”, at the Coronado last Thursday, May 23, and see how they did it.

I guess we start by gathering up a lot of nostalgic melodies, ones that evoke a story or a scene, classics that have lasted because they were also just so good musically—but be careful to screen out any sad or slow songs that might create a drag.

Our next task is to find a way to tie them together. So, be sure to bring in a creative talent with background in both music and theater, like Andrea Bear (she did the job for 1999’s “Musicals! A Broadway Celebration”, and that was a big hit); we can be sure she’ll give us a good book to pull the music together and give it the continuity it needs to hold the audience. Then bring in a director with a solid background in directing — how about Rockford’s own Gail Dartez, with her Yale training and her local

experience with NAT and a score of other Rockford venues?

And what do we need next? How about a pianist like Tim Anderson, who knows the secret of keeping up the pace, keeping the songs from dragging, keeping the audience applause from cutting into the pace of the show. (Even when the audience enthusiasm led them to join in with a rhythmic clapping, he knew how to keep things moving—an art in itself.)

Remember to audition enough local talent to wind up with a more-than-capable cast of about 150? And a change of costumes (and props) just about every time the music shifts key—and a backstage crew to keep this all in order (while I fear I heard stories of chaos behind the scenes, I promise it never showed up on stage).

Then, oh yes, how about some fireworks for the flag-waving moments, and a shower of sparkles from the roof at the close of the evening, and a lighting crew that can use color to provide the impression of a constantly changing scene, and, oh boy, how can we forget—or did we just save the best for last? The incredible dance stars, Jill and Doug Beardsley, who added such a dazzle to the 1999 show! And to bring dance into all the other scenes, how about Colleen Cox, a professional choreographer who sailed into the assignment with gusto, and got everyone doing a credible basic tap—and swing—and soft shoe—and—maybe you have the idea by now?

The theme of the book was the history of musicals on film, opening with a recognition that the Coronado itself opened at about the time that movies added sound. The Overture, played by Bob Bates on the Coronado’s massive Grande Barton Organ, gave us a taste of an early silent dance film augmented by the organ in 1927. Sound arrived in 1928, and in 1929 alone the burgeoning film industry produced 50 musicals. Five musical numbers from 1928 and 1929 were held together by creating a railroad station setting, where a variety of stars saw each other off, as the travelers then arrived on stage at the “Ritz”.

Gail Dartez, in her role as Narrator, then told us that 1930 topped 1929 with a score of 60 more musicals on film, and musicals continued to buoy our spirits through the Depression-dogged decade, with titles such as “I Want to be Happy” and “42nd Street”, which got everyone out front for a tap dance spectacular.

The 1940s gave us the age of the studio system, and the patriotic themes that got us through World War Two—while the 1950s, turned to Broadway to find shows that could be transferred successfully to film. Think Gigi, Carousel, The King and I.

For the 1960’s, Gail Dartez emerged costumed as a hippie, to highlight the decade’s contrasts. In an age of the Vietnam War, student protests, and racial unrest (long overdue), Hollywood gave us an escape with My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, Music Man and The Sound of Music.

In the 1970’s, the musical had nearly run its course, but Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof both offered a channel to think about the varied history that led us into our present world.

Everyone will have their prize memories,the songs that carried them away, the artists who tweaked their heart-strings, that may have brought them to tears or to a certain blissful ecstasy—and no way can I list everyone here. But I can just offer my own favorites to complement the names cited above.

For instance, Jerry and Kathy Stevens, a talented couple, with his silky voice, and her shimmying body and sense of humor that both enhanced her own lovely voice and dramatic presentation in a number of appearances. And Tenor George Davis may be shy about telling us anything of his past in theater, but he has always wanted to sing, and his warm, rounded tones, combined with his acting skills, make an unbeatable combination.

Then there’s a slew of others—a busload of school-age performers, and Dennis Johnson, who can come sing to us anywhere, any time, as far as I’m concerned, and my real surprise favorite, Diana Fry (I’d

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never seen her before), who took charge of the whole Coronado with her several take-offs on the torch-song genre, being just a bit “over the top” in a rendition that says it’s possibly serious, but she can see the history of the style and knows it’s also a bit of a hoot today.

I know, I’ve just made about 140 enemies by leaving out about that many names, but each reader will have their own list, and I hope they enjoyed the show as much as I did. If you asked me to try to “cut” someone from the show, for letting down the standard, I could not suggest any name that fell short, but you will each have to make up your own personal roster of favorites, favorite dance routines, favorite voices, and favorite musical memories, because that’s what the show was all about.

But wait, how could I leave off Janet Bracken and Carolyn Cadigan as “A Couple of Swells” . . . or Karen Kahler in any of her several appearances . . or high-school freshman Brant Cox, who sang so smoothly in “The Way You Look Tonight” (how can he be so musically ready when he is so young?) . . . or the male ensemble doing “Luck Be a Lady” . . . as I said above, you’ll each have to make up your own list of favorites, and I can only beg the forgiveness of those I left out, you were all great!

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