La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, up the I-5 at the Orange/LA County line, has provided a home for local musical theatre producers to mount Broadway-scale productions. It’s currently hosting such a show, Empire, with book, music and lyrics by the married team of Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull. The production represents a good start for a show that has Broadway aspirations, but it needs a fair amount of work before it will be New York-ready.

Stephanie Gibson and dancers Photos by Michael Lamont

Stephanie Gibson and dancers
Photos by Michael Lamont

Ms. Sherman and Mr. Hull’s original story works from the historical record of the planning and construction of the Empire State Building in New York City to fashion a fictional tale of the dreamers and doers who made it happen. The only character who is bears a historically-accurate name is Al Smith (Michael McCormick), former Governor of New York, Even the iconic picture (by Charles C. Ebbets) of workers having lunch on a steel beam high over the city, which director Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s production recreates on stage, was actually taken at the Rockefeller Center construction site.

The story is mostly pure musical theatre hokum. Michael Shaw (Kevin Earley), the idealistic (and egotistical) building architect and Al Smith’s “can do” assistant, Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson) are thrown together to construct the world’s tallest building in record time. There’s no “meet cute,” but it’s clear from the beginning where this relationship is eventually going.

In order to get the building done so quickly, experience is needed. One of the best is Ethan O’Dowd (Caleb Shaw), whose wife, Emily (Katharine McDonough) is pregnant and doesn’t want him risking his life anymore. There’s also a contingent of Mohawk Tribe Skywalkers (Richard Bulda, Jordan Richardson, Gabriel Navarro, and Rodrigo Varandas) who scale the heights unafraid. Even the daughter of the man who’s raising the money for the project (Charlotte Maltby) gets involved.

The cast

The cast

Will the building beat the deadline and open on time? Will anyone fall from a high perch? Will there be a big celebratory opening of the building at the end? Will each principal cast member have a song, sometimes two? Will audiences look at Michael and Frankie and not think of two current candidates for president?

Of course, the answers are obvious, which is the problem with the current book. Even musical theatre hokum needs some surprises.

Still, there’s a superstructure of a Broadway-caliber show here, starting with Ms. Dodge’s tight direction and very watchable choreography. The technical elements also help, particularly the projections, which were co-designed by David Gallo and Brad Peterson. The appealing cast works hard and impresses positively.

But, there’re too many songs and not enough surprises. All of that can be fixed, though.

The show runs through February 14. Better hurry if you want to say you saw it when.

[box]Empire plays Wednesday through Sunday at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada, CA 90638. From San Diego, take I-5 north past Rt. 91 to Auto Center, turn right on Beach Boulevard, then left on La Mirada Boulevard to the theatre. Plenty of free parking is available around the perimeter of the theatre. Tickets available by going to http://www.lamiradatheatre.com/empire.htm or by calling 562-944-9801 or 714-994-6310. This review was based on the matinee performance, Sunday, January 31.

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Bill Eadie

Bill Eadie

In addition to reviewing theatre for San Diego Story, Bill also reviews for TalkinBroadway.com. He is a member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association. Bill is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University.

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