(photo credit Susie Sprinkel Hudson)
Written by Mike Martin
Blame it on the Movies, currently playing at Vanguard University, is a true cabaret style production. This has its benefits and drawbacks. The audience is spared the tacked on (and often tacky) “story” that gets written for most “Juke Box Musicals” (think All Shook Up, Ring of Fire, Crazy, and the like), which is a blessing. Instead this show is a collection of songs from the movies, pure and simple. While I appreciated dispensing the pretense of trying to make a full blown musical out of it, it does mean the show rests on the songs themselves and the performances, and that is where Blame it on the Movies has its ups and downs.
Part of the uneven nature of the show, I think, comes from its very premise. It sounds like a good idea to do movie music on stage until you realize, as I did, that most people don’t really remember a great many songs from most movies. As such, the audience at my performance made small “Ah” noises when they recognized something, and maybe a few spotted more tunes than I did, but a fair amount of the fare was fairly obscure selections from fairly obscure movies. This was definitely the case early on as the show takes a fairly chronological arc.
Remember all your favorites from Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe? How about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg? Who can forget the love theme from Spartacus? All of these and more make appearances in the show, including a section covering “Songs That Didn’t Win An Oscar.” Here is the major issue I have with this show as written. It sets up a promise it doesn’t deliver on. For a show that promises hits, they are few and far between. Luckily there was a projection screen to give the audience a hint, but alas, the screen often just showed a brief and disjointed clip from something else all together. In one truly head slapping moment, the cast had just performed a very fun and competent tap number live on stage, only to be completely overshadowed by an amazing Bojangles clip from Little Colonel. Adding to the frustration is it was one of the only clips to be shown with sound and in its entirety.
Even so, I do think there may be more of a show here with some staging help. A few more directorial choices to set up the context of the songs would definitely have been helpful. Instead the staging is fairly mundane, with dinner-theater choreography and all the performance gravitas of a Young Americans concert.
One of the few times we see an active hand in the proceedings is the director’s choice to turn The Way We Were into a 9-11 Twin Towers tribute. This was not only jarring, but in the context of the larger performance, insulting. Whether it was intended or not, it read as a blatant attempt to wring some pathos out of the show. Often the only genuine laughs came from a bit of facial mugging or a goofy prop, cheap laughs that the audience was starved for.
What is left is a fairly bland show that may for some, leave a bland sense of satisfaction upon viewing.
The performers themselves were energetic and almost exhausting to watch. They work together in an almost perfect unit when all together on stage. It’s when they go solo or in small groups that some of the flaws start to show. Few of the cast are true triple threats, but a few stood out. Dani Burley, Gabrielle Incremona, and Austin Nunn (sadly a stand in on my performance) seemed to get what some of the rest of the cast, and the production team, may have forgotten –that these songs can be fun and engaging instead of just saccharine. There may have been more talent in a given area with some of the other performers, but those three rose above being watchable to being compelling.
As a lifelong performer, sometime director and sporadic critic, I know what to look for. The character drop when the performer thinks they’re lost in the crowd, the watching of the footwork of the person in front of them, the smile that gets plastered on but never meets the eyes. I spot them. The vast majority of the audience doesn’t. All they know is that a thing feels either exciting or lackluster. Blame it on the Movies, unfortunately, tends to the latter.