6/7/2022 TRADING PLACES Alliance Theatre
MINUTES FROM THE BLUE ROUTE
1983’s Trading Places at first seems like an odd choice for a musical adaptation. Do we really need another 80’s period piece for a decade I somehow managed to sleep through (I was working the midnight shift at the time), and which was highlighted by music I hated, fashion styles I avoided, and a rabid “Greed is Good” ethos that anyone smarter than a Pet Rock could predict was unsustainable? But then, when you consider the highly divisive nature of America these days, it seems a natural fit – if you can “walk a mile” in the shoes of someone whose worldview you truly despise, maybe (just maybe) the rancor will evolve into respectful disagreement. But I’m not holding my breath,
Trading Places: The Musical, now being given a (hopefully) pre-Broadway trial run at our own Alliance Theatre, is tuneful (in a non-80’s way) and terrific, a lark of a musical that makes its political points without loosing sight of its unique characters, a funny and energetic reminder of why the original movie (with all its shortcomings) was so popular.
Billie Rae Valentine is a Philadelphia hustler, a woman with a flair for survival and with a gift of gab. She barely ekes out a life on the streets, living day to day, minute by minute by her wits. Louis Winthorpe III is her opposite, a commodities trader who is whip-smart but street-naive, a wealthy man with a perfect job, a perfect home, a perfect coterie of nameless servants, a perfect fiancée, and, we assume, perfect teeth. When the Duke brothers, Louis’s employers and the uncles to his fiancée, concoct a bet to solve the age-old nature-versus-nurture conundrum, Louis suddenly finds himself on the street and Billie Rae suddenly finds herself in the lap of luxury.
As expected, Billie Rae reveals herself to be a natural at this rich-person gig, having a talent for the con game that is legitimate commodities trading. OTOH, Louis can barely survive a day on the street until he gets a little help from a drag performer named Ophelia (aka “Phil”). Throw in Louis’s fiancée, Penelope, a not-so-nameless butler, Coleman, and a mysterious “operative” (with a musical comedy soul) named Binks, and you have a gloriously zany plot that soars along at a furious clip, hitting all the expected “80’s clichés and stereotypes and giving them a surprisingly contemporary depth and sincerity. I liked this show a lot.
Chief among its assets is the score by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, who gave us 2013’s First Date, a show I’ve worked and seen (and enjoyed) fairly often. Unfortunately, the program doesn’t give us a song list so I can’t cite particular titles. Suffice to say the opening number (with its recurring chorus of “Welcome to Philadelphia, Screw Youse” perfectly paints a portrait of a city I worked in and lived near for a large chunk of my adult life.** Billie Rae’s confusion at her new situation (could it really be called “What the F**k is Going On”?) and her 11:00 o’clock belt number (“Not Anymore,” I think) would be standouts in any other show, but here are just more pearls on a seemingly endless necklace. Louis’s opening exposition number and his “What time is it in Gstaed” are beautifully conceived songs that stick in the memory. Even Penelope, who is given a much more interesting arc here than in the original film, has a recurring song that reveals her as a more-than-meets-the-eye caricature,
The book by Thomas Lennon (of TV’s Reno 911 and the recent Odd Couple reboot) has paid due homage to the original screenplay, excised all it’s dated and dubious overtones, and added enough twists to keep it alive for a contemporary woke-minded audience. The addition of gender -politick to the original race- and class-politick is a brilliant choice and underscores the we’re-more-the-same-than-our-differences-lead-us-to believe motif.
And this cast, culled from the Best of Broadway, is a musical geeks delight. As Billie Rae, Aneesa Folds (Freestyle Love Supreme) is a powerhouse talent who OWNS the stage and every scene she graces. As Louis, Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) is a true delight, capturing the character’s essential narcissism but having an edge of vulnerability that charms. .As Penelope, Atlanta native McKenzie Kurtz is a revelation, displaying dynamic vocal and acting skills that make that character jump from the stage. Also memorable are Marc Kudisch and Lenny Wolpe as the Dukes, Michael Longoria as Phil (Ophelia). Josh Lamon as Mr. Beeks, and Don Stephenson as the butler, Coleman Murphy. They are supported by a large ensemble who dip into and out of various roles and provide a full choral support.
Directed by Kenny Leon (welcome home, good sir!) and choreographed by Fatima Robinson, the entire production is a feast for the eyes and ears. The set by Beowulf Boritt, all neon and open space, zips from scene to scene smoothy and elegantly, with sight gags galore – I especially enjoyed the all-male all-white portraits in the Men’s Club of founding fathers and political figures who have, lately at least, been revealed as having historical feet of clay.
So, if you could trade places with someone whose life is totally “outside your wheelhouse,” how would you fare? If you could see yourself through the eyes of someone with whom you passionately disagree, what you like what you see? And if you met someone on the street who wants to sell you a VCR that fell off the back of a truck, would it be worth $50? (Asking for a friend who never threw out those old VHS tapes.)
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol,com #AllianceTradingPlaces)
** All you ex-Philly folk can explain the title of this column to those not so blessed.