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Sunday, September 29, 2013


l-r Young Hub (Kevin Earley) and Young Garth (Jared Michael Brown) in Secondhand Lions at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
        At The 5th Avenue Theatre, the projected newsreel-like image of a huge, fast moving bi-plane appeared to roar outward toward the audience, as if to say, “Comin’ at ya!”  It looked like we were in for quite a ride on opening night of the new musical Secondhand Lions, a world premiere production that runs through next weekend. We would see many more brilliant, almost magical, multi-media special effects, where cast members would pass through a curtain that served as a projection screen and become part of a vintage-looking, almost cartoonish moving picture. We would see dazzling costumes and the beautifully detailed and cleverly designed sets I always love at this theatre. Excellent singing, dancing and acting came in abundance. Doesn’t that seem like a recipe for great entertainment? It was, in most ways.
       Considering all the creativity, hard work, and dedication by so many talented people, whose efforts I appreciate, I would love to be able to give this show a rating of two thumbs up. I just tried that gesture here at home in front of my laptop, but one of my thumbs kept folding over a bit and twitching. Something—actually several somethings—just wouldn’t quite let me make that sign.
l-r Hub (Mark Jacoby), Walter (Johnny Rabe), Mae (Kendra Kassebaum) and Garth (Gregg Edelman) in Secondhand Lions at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit: Tracy Ma
        There are many good reasons to see Secondhand Lions. Even though it won’t rank as one of my all-times favorites, the show still has so much going for it. In addition to the aspects already mentioned, it offers a satisfying story line and much more. A boy named Walter has no father but a socially outgoing mother, Mae (Kendra Kassebaum), who thinks only of her own self-serving agenda when she drops him off at the home of her two old uncles who live an isolated existence in rural Texas. The relationship the boy develops with this pair of brothers—Garth (Gregg Edelman) and Hub (Mark Jacoby) enriches all their lives, helping Walter grow up and helping the uncles come to terms with their own pasts. It involves a lot of fantastic storytelling around the elders' adventures in the French Foreign Legion involving a sultan (Jason Danieley) and the story’s female heroine, Samira (Jenny Powers). We don't learn until the end whether these stories were true or not.
The Sultan (Jason Danieley, center) and his treasurer (Nick DeSantis) in Secondhand Lions at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
       This musical features impressive performances from the entire cast. Some of the best moments included Kevin Earley as the young Hub and adult Walter. I loved his voice. Powers was outstanding as the princess Samira, sang beautifully and looked great, although her character was written as a just bit too much of the smarter-than-men, braver-than-men, emasculating superwoman who employs feminine charm one minute and literally kicks butt the next, flicking those sword bearing guards aside like pesky flies. These types of absurdities didn't always mesh well with the more serious and poignant side of the story.
       Justin Huertas was pure delight in his 5th Avenue debut, as Achmed, the sultan’s silent servant (having had his tongue cut out), who communicates through facial expressions and gestures. I appreciated the talent it took to pull off that part so perfectly, and I’m glad to discover this man of many talents. Without seeming to worship youth over veteran actors, I cannot ignore the fine job done by Johnny Rabe as the boy protagonist, Walter, and Sophia Anne Caruso as his neighbor and friend, Jane. Both showed a great deal of confidence and professionalism and belted out their songs as well as any adult.
Jane (Sophia Anne Caruso, front) and Walter (Johnn Rabe) in Secondhand Lions at The 5th Avenue Theatre.
Credit Tracy Martin
       I offer plenty of praise for Eugene Lee for his scenic design, Jeff Sugg for his projection design, and Ann Hould-Ward for the stunning costumes. When the harem girls spread their pleated, golden wing-like capes under those lights, I nearly gasped at the spectacle.
       Did I like Secondhand Lions? Yes, I did. I enjoyed it very much. Did I fall in love with it? No, we're just friends. That doesn't mean you won't be smitten. I could sum up most of what I didn’t love with one word: sound. That word covers a lot of territory beyond the merely technical side of things. Let me explain.
       Over-amplification annoyed me at once, although that problem might have been corrected in subsequent presentations. I also got the impression of an imbalance in the orchestra’s instruments. The music itself was certainly well performed and nice—as in pleasant, sweet, or fun. Resident Music Supervisor Ian Eisendrath is, of course, a wonderful conductor, but not a single one of these songs stuck in my head, had me humming, set my feet tapping, or made me want a recording. I certainly didn’t hear anything destined to become a classic. This surprised me. Since I knew Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner wrote the music and lyrics—and their combined talents in First Date blew me away—I expected outstanding tunes. The lyrics, although often clever and delightful, sometimes shifted gears into what sounded like Gilbert and Sullivan after too much caffeine. In fact, the whole story shifted gears too often.
       Then there was the matter of accents. I could not understand how so many people living in the same location, even living in the same family, could have accents ranging from none at all to the most exaggerated Texas drawl ever heard and everything in between. That inconsistency took away from believability, even in a story this fantastic.
The Sultan (Jason Danieley, center) and his treasurer (Nick DeSantis) in Secondhand Lions at The 5th Avenue Theatre

I totally respect the talents and track record of Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book for this musical, and think he struck a good balance between humor and poignancy. However, this show is not on a par with so many musicals at this theater that I have loved and will never forget. Let’s call it “one thumb up and one slightly bent at the knuckle” but still very much worth the price of a ticket. You can order yours online here: The 5th Avenue Box Office Don't wait too long because it ends on October 6.

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Unknown said...

Having read the other reviews which, suspiciously, use many duplicate descriptions (e.g., "caffeinated" rather than "energetic"), I would like to applaud this writer for giving an almost-positive review. It must have been difficult to sit with the other critics whose reviews belied their predisposition toward criticizing this production rather than enjoying it. I think you may have actually enjoyed it as much as most of the audience, who laughed and cheered aloud and gave a standing ovation. Did you join them?

Candace Brown said...

Yes, I did enjoy it, applaud, and participate in the standing ovation. I like some shows better than others, but I always appreciate the talent, hard work, and creativity that goes into each one. Thank you for commenting, and please accept my apology for the late reply. I did not see this in my inbox right away.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Great Review! Do you know if there is any soundtrack yet? And if there is, could you tell me where can I find it? Thank you very much.

Candace Brown said...

Sorry, but I know nothing about that. You could contact the theater to ask if a soundtrack exists. Thanks for your nice comment.