Civic Light Operas owe their livelihood to revivals of Broadway classics and more recent hits. Rarely if ever do they attempt something brand new. Thus, Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities is taking quite a bold step in presenting a world premiere musical, Twice Upon A Time, with book and direction by Ray Cooney. Though the results are somewhat mixed, James A. Blackman III and company deserve major props for venturing into unknown territory.

Twice Upon A Time borrows a bit from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, another musical tale of past life regression. Just as Daisy Gamble traveled back in time to become Melinda, so does hotshot British lawyer Steven Tancred time-travel to 1929 Chicago to recall a previous incarnation as rookie 
hoodlum Johnny May.

In the present, Steven is engaged to be married to Barbara, the boss’s daughter. In the past, Johnny falls for gangster’s moll Ruby. When a woman looking just like Ruby turns up in the present, things get even more complicated, especially as Ruby-look-alike Linda turns out to be the granddaughter of Mrs. Emily Clark, the lone holdout in selling her land to a large shopping center developer. Steven, you see, has been assigned to make certain that Mrs. Clark sells her cottage, which happens to be sitting smack dab in the center of the already under construction shopping center. Whether Steven will choose Linda over Barbara, whether Johnny and Ruby can escape being gunned down during the infamous 1929 Valentine’s Day Massacre, and whether “being” Johnny will give Steven the guts to stand upfor himself are among the questions around which Twice Upon A Time’s plot revolves.

Though any musical theater lover with an ounce of experience with happy endings can guess that our two pairs of heroes and heroines will live happily ever after, the fun is in the getting there, and there is a good deal of fun, as well as music and dance, in Twice Upon A Time.

What CLOSBC’s production has going for it most is a crackerjack cast of some of the best musical theater performers in the Southland, all at the top of their craft. (18 of the 27 performers are Equity, a much higher number than I can recall seeing in a CLO production.) As Steven/Johnny, relative newcomer Brandon Michael Perkins is a talented and ingratiating singing/dancing boy-next-door, a Donald O’Connor for the new millennium.

Misty Cotton, Ovation nominated for her sensational turn in CLOSBC’s Sophisticated Ladies, brings her triple threat talents to the dual roles of Linda/Ruby, and treats us to the haunting solo “Deep In My Heart.” Gorgeous blonde Jennifer Malenke, as Barbara, is a musical superstar waitingto emerge, wit quite possibly the most beautiful soprano around. In the role of Steven’s boss and Barbara’s father, theater vet Robert Machray reveals that he is not only a commanding actor but a good singer as well. Sam Zeller makes for a perfect tough guy gangster as Bugs Moran. Danny Bolero has loads of fun as South Asian therapist, Dr. Patel, whose stop-smoking hypnosis first connects Steven with his past as Johnny May. Carly Nykanen’s charming turn as secretary Miss Dixon makes one hope to see her in leading roles. Kevin Symons, Monica Smith, and Jeffrey Rockwell all do their accustomed fine work. 

Finally, there is West End/Broadway legend Millicent Martin, stealing scenes as dotty but feisty Mrs. Clark. Kudos to the supertalented ensemble: Matt Bezmarevich, Jennifer Brasuell, Chris Ciccarelli, Travis Davidson, David R. Gordon, Lloyd Gordon, Merissa Haddad, Carolanne Maranao, Heather Mieko, Joseph Marshall, Marc Oka, Chris Redondo, Stephanie Renz, Jesse Rhodus, Glenn Shiroma, and Rachel Thoreson.

Chris Walker’s music…is bouncy and tuneful enough to make one wish that a cast recording were already available. One listen is not enough for songs like “The Truth About Ruby.” (“With Barbara you’d write her a letter, with Ruby you’d write her a song”). As always, CLOSBC’s orchestra, under the direction of Dennis Castellano, can give any Broadway orchestra a run for their money.

Karen Nowicki has choreographed some snappy dance numbers, including the Charleston infused “You’re Gonna Love Chicago,” “The Rat-A-Tat Rag” with its the machine-gun-totting, tap-dancing gangsters, and the seductive tango of “He’s Having An Affair.”

As expected from a Roy Cooney play, there are many laughs and crazy situations, though not nearly as many as might be expected from the author of such farcical gems as Move Over, Mrs. Markham and ICT’s recent Tom, Dick, and Harry. Some of the biggest laughs come from a running gag that Steven need only see an object waved in front of his face (e.g. his boss’s letter opener, a catering manager’s soup ladle, a priest’s eyeglasses on his wedding day no less) to fall into a trance and regress to his past life. It’s very funny to see Steven, suddenly returned to the present, discover himself in the midst of kissing the secretary, or later, when he attempts to send himself back into the past by waving a letter opener in front of his eyes, somehow end up in a clinch with a man, on his boss’s desk, with an audience of office workers looking on. There’s also a funny sequence near the end where Dr. Patel keeps getting punch after punch aimed at other people.

Still, for a show with Broadway aspirations, Twice Upon A Time will need more than just a little tweaking to get there. The show needs a hands-down slam-dunk show-stopper or two, the kind that gets audiences cheering. I’d like to feel more invested in Steven’s present dilemma and that of Johnny in the past. Hopefully a way can be found to make transitions from past to present (and back again) happen more smoothly and swiftly. (I can’t recall a musical where the audience so often sees actors scurrying offstage at a blackout or onstage to take their positions for lights up.) And if you cast the beautiful Jennifer Malenke as the girl Steven doesn’t want, for goodness sake a) give her a solo and b) give us a better reason why he should want to get out of marrying her. I’d love to see what one of our local superdirectors (e.g. Nick DeGruccio, Troy Magino, or Steven Glaudini) could do in upping the pizzazz and emotional impact of this show.

I was hoping to love Twice Upon A Time. I ended up finding it an enjoyable and entertaining show which gave me the chance to see a couple dozen of the best musical theater performers around. Certainly a good thing, but this is a show that could be even more.


by Steven Stanley