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For sheer exuberance, here comes A Sign of the Times, a regional premiere and Delaware Theatre Company’s holiday offering. It’s a singing and dancing bildungsroman where the music never seems to stop.
The inimitable Bruce Vilanch has written a book connecting 29 songs from the 1960s in a snappy production snappily directed by Gabriel Barre. JoAnn M. Hunter gives the company’s dancers a fabulous workout with storytelling choreography matching the iconic lyrics.
Marriage or a Mohawk?
It’s 1965 in Centerville (“Ohio’s largest collection of stone buildings”), which boasts an auto plant and little else. Aspiring photographer Cindy (the winning Chilina Kennedy) lives with Aunt Cleo (Stacia Fernandez). But she’s longing to leave town, fearful of being trapped into a stolid marriage with Matt (Drew Seeley). When Matt reveals he’s bought a house and proposes a wedding and family, Cindy jets off to New York City.
She boards Mohawk Air (a clever scene with a martini-drinking pilot) and heads for Manhattan. Alternately daunted and invigorated by the big city — where “local time is ten years ahead of where you just came from” — she finds that jobs are scarce, but sexism and condescension are rampant. Savvy roommate Tanya (the dynamic Crystal Lucas-Perry) shows her the ropes. Tanya joins professional protester Dennis (Steven Grant Douglas), while Cindy takes up with slick Madison Avenue guy Brian (Ryan Silverman) and pursues her photographic career.
A new ear for ’60s pop
Both women ride the wave of social change then transforming America, in a sometimes predictable narrative delivered with an inventive blast of pop music. The iconic songs of Petula Clark and other 1960s hitmakers — like “Downtown,” “Five o’Clock World,” “The Boy from New York City,” and “You Don’t Own Me” — advance the storyline in unique ways for the genre.
One of the great pleasures of the evening is hearing the songs anew in orchestrations from Joseph Church, who gives the tunes Broadway-style treatment and a surprising musical sophistication. Keyboardist Rick Fox leads a 10-piece orchestra — hidden above the stage except for one stunning reveal — that does more than ample justice to the arrangements.
The six singing-and-dancing principals — powerful musical performers with a raft of Broadway and national credits — revolve around Kennedy, who can belt and ballad with the best. Every principal has a dandy musical turn, though the two women’s roles are especially strongly written.
Throughout the evening a 12-member ensemble of singer-dancers realizes the show’s jubilant music and zippy choreography. They play multiple characters, but there’s no “chorus mentality” here. Each performer individualizes every situation, even in the big dance numbers, and it’s a pleasure to watch them at work.
Tech and stagecraft
This show could benefit from some judicious cuts, but the evening’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime goes quickly, its hundreds of moving parts — technical and dramatic — skillfully finessed by Barre, a seasoned director whose crisp staging never lets the action flag.
Using clever topical references, Vilanch delves into the era’s highlights and lowlights and social upheavals. The evening begins with a forced Midwestern flatness in a realistic kitchen (never revisited) that makes for a slow takeoff. But the show grows consistently stronger, especially in the second act where Vilanch and the songs deal more directly with racism, sexism, and the Vietnam War, drawing out the political content embedded in the seemingly innocuous pop music.
The production is a mind-boggling and joyous combination of technical wizardry and good old-fashioned stagecraft. Jen Caprio dresses the company in just the right ’60s style, and Shannon Slaton’s well-balanced sound — so important here — doesn’t overwhelm in the intimate DTC house. The flexible scenic design (by Paul Tate dePoo III) always serves the action and provides a surprising amount of playing space. It’s also a supple canvas for the period lights of Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz and the remarkable projections of 59 Productions.
The show premiered in 2016 at Connecticut’s famed Goodspeed Opera House. There have been changes since then, with undoubtedly more to come as the show seeks its dramatic future. It will be fun to see where it goes, but A Sign of the Times is right here right now.
What, When, Where
A Sign of the Times. Book by Bruce Vilanch, from a story by Richard J. Robin. Directed by Gabriel Barre; choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter; music supervision and orchestration by Joseph Church; music direction by Rick Fox. Through December 23, 2018 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington, DE. 302-594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
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