There are two kinds of performer's smile. The first is a nervous, win-them-over, beginning-of-the-show smile. It is generally not convincing. The second kind is a genuine radiance that comes from the joy of performing and connection with an audience.
Tunes, the celebration of the music of Fred Palmisano, now onstage at Le Petit, moves from the first kind of smile to the second. Palmisano, who was born in Gretna in 1945, died in New Orleans in 1990. He was a composer, songwriter and piano player, who contributed much to the local theater scene.
Tunes debuted in the Children's Corner of Le Petit under the auspices of Luis Barroso in 1974. Barroso himself went on to direct it on the main stage two years later. I am indebted for this background to the inexhaustible Ricky Graham, director of the current outing, as well as the principal lyricist, out of a group of six.
The show is a revue. At first, the stage is empty. We see what looks like a theater trunk. The wing flats are decorated in silver notes and clefs that could be a swarm of insects, given the little leg and winglike markings of sixteenth notes, for instance.
Onto the stage comes a zestful company of four men and four women. They wear neat, old-timey, pastel costumes -- courtesy of Cecile Casey Covert. The guys have on bow ties and sport jackets. The girls wear dresses.
This gang raises the rafters with the opening number, and I have to say Tunes is one of the few shows where the group singing occasionally seemed too loud to me. Soon enough, they turn their attention to the trunk. Opening it is like opening Pandora's box, except that good stuff flies out instead of bad. The stuff from the trunk also serves to incorporate one of the peculiar features of Palmisano's music -- his songs were often connected to genres of the past. In any case, atoms of light swarm out. They foretell: "the magical," "the musical" and "the past." None of the above. All of the above. Hard to say exactly. Anyway, the whirling swarm of little lights gets us going.
A sign that says "Vaudeville" descends. This launches the cast on a series of numbers meant to relate to gay-'90s gaiety. Here I should note that, in addition to the vibrant vocals, we get some high-tone hoofing as well. Karen Hebert directed the show with Graham and doubled as choreographer. A tip of the hat to her and her dancers for many delightful moments -- and one quite numinous ritual that accompanies Meredith Long's tear-your-heart-out singing.
In a two-act show composed of a bewildering amalgam of 32 songs without dialogue or story, it's hard to pick out individual highlights. Someone would always get short changed. The cast -- Amy Alvarez, Meredith Long, Patrick Mendelson, Matthew Mickal, Jimmy Murphy, Casey Leigh Thompson, Bryan Wagar and Mandy Zirkenback -- are a bunch of pros and they are at the top of their form. The so-called "featured" Becky Allen puts in a cameo and sings one song, supposedly a ballad, but really a pastiche of double-entendre blues called "My Laundry Man" (yes, he puts it in and turns it around and pulls it out, etc.).
Some of the other glimmering entities that gush out of the trunk, as the show continues, are "The Grand Hotel Follies," "New Orleans in Revue," and "Songs from The Children's Corner."
"The Hotel Follies" is a '20s confection, involving a gold-digging movie star and her millionaire prey. "Hollywood can be very taxing. / Now, it's time for some relaxing."
Of course, the chambermaids are green with envy.
"New Orleans" celebrates the Big Easy. Apparently, the opening second line number didn't make anyone else in the audience feel that maybe, sometimes, we're just a bit too easy. I mean, getting drunk and smacking your hip with a tambourine is cool and all, but do we have nothing else to brag about? Hair salons, apparently. A nice close-harmony girls group number puts the boogie woogie into beauty.
"The Children's Corner" reprises moments from Le Petit's touted "Golden Age of Children's Theater." The characters we see are drawn mostly from skewered versions of Mother Goose classics. Some of it is great fun, like Cinderella hobbling around in one pump, looking for her prince through a pair of binoculars.
In keeping with Fred Palmisano's never-say-die spirit, Tunes is more about celebrating the moment, than moaning over difficulties. At the very end of the show, an elegiac note takes over briefly. We get the message that lightheartedness is not necessarily shallowness. It can be a very special form of courage.
- John B. Barrios
- Tunes features 32 songs in a tribute to composer Fred Palmisano.