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a Musical Comedy
by Beverly Trader Austin (words) & Bryan Mercer (music)

COMPANY : Atlanta Musical Theatre Festival [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Brady Street Theater [WEBSITE]
ID# 5107

SHOWING : July 31, 2017 - July 31, 2017



Set in 1917 Claxton, Georgia, "Cakewalk" is a spicy satire, with a score rich in melodic eclecticism. Meet the Clugston family, led by patriarch Commissioner John Clugston, successful fruitcake manufacturer, whose heated race for mayor is complicated by the unfortunate behavior of his family and servants.

The Clugston’s smart and insightful servant, Phoebe, pulls back the curtain on this mess of a family! There are scandalous surprises, philandering politicians, corrupt businessmen, calculating metrosexuals, and entitled young people. The women are addicted to liquor, boys, and the fashion of the moment. And everyone has a secret, each of which threatens to explode with devastating political consequences.

It’s uncanny how the Clugstons of 1917 Georgia, bear a disturbing resemblance to 2017 America.

Director David Thomas
Percy Clugston Trevor Goble
John Clugston David Huenergardt
Miss Charlotte Clugston Wendy Melkonian
The Stranger Holly Stevenson
Charles Stanton Ben Thorpe
Phoebe India Sada Tyree
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A Modern 1917 Musical
by playgoer
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
The cakewalk as a style of music is closely related to ragtime, but with more of a genteel syncopation than jaggedy ragtime rhythms. When ragtime made its way into the American musical theatre in the early twentieth century, it was with its jagged edges smoothed out, and with the influence of operetta still heavy, especially when it came to ballads. Bryan Mercer’s music for "Cakewalk" beautifully mimics the style of these early musicals. The opening number and most of the first act land on the ragtime side of the scale; the second act numbers tend to reflect more of an operetta sensibility.

Beverly Trader Austin’s book also reflects an earlier sensibility, with its paper-thin characters serving a farcical plot that has a fruitcake tycoon (David Huenergardt) running for mayor in a scandal-filled town, with his platform of respectability undermined by the scandals that erupt in his own family. His wife (the raucous Kathy Halenda) has a hankering for liquor and inappropriate men, plus a secret past. Elder daughter Charlotte (Wendy Melkonian) has a bun of uncertain lineage in her oven, and younger daughter Estelle (Amber Hamilton) has been expelled from school. Son Percy (Trevor Goble) is a ne’er-do-well, and chauffeur Charles (Ben Thorpe, with an abysmal faux-British accent) has romantic entanglements all over the family tree. In contrast to the Clugston family dysfunction, we have a multi-disguised stranger (Holly Stevenson) and a pragmatic maid (the endearing India S. Tyree) to set things up and bring the story to a conclusion.

For a staged reading, you don’t expect a lot of production values. Michael Hidalgo has supplied a variety of black boxes that act as seating and pairs of stanchions to act as doorways. At the start, they’re gathered together into a clump center stage. Director David Thomas has the actors arrange the set as the introduction proceeds. Props are usually (but not consistently) mimed. Movement is fluid, with a window frame held up at various points as various cast members mime climbing through it, often with delightful mouth-created sound effects.

You don’t expect choreography in a staged reading, but Mr. Thomas has the actors perform cakewalk movements in the opening number and there’s a limited amount of dancing later on. Mostly, we see the frenetic movement of a farce, hampered at times by actors having to find their place in the script (although Mr. Huenergardt appears to have memorized his role start to finish in the week in which the show was put together).

Performances are generally good, and music director Patrick Hutchison has gotten fine vocal performances out of everyone. His keyboard playing, accompanied by bassist Billy Gewin, is fully professional. Vocal harmonies sound great throughout. The musical numbers tend to be short, partly due to the fact that dance breaks make no sense in a staged reading.

While the sensibility of the music and plot harken back to 1917, the lyrics and situations sometimes aim for the risqué (from maybe a couple of decades after 1917). It doesn’t all work, with the sexuality of chauffeur Charles perhaps most problematic, as it seems to shift to accommodate plot points. Lyrics can be pedestrian, and some numbers (particularly one about proper grammar) fall flat. The plot takes too much time to get going, and it’s not until the introduction of younger daughter Estelle that the action seems to pick up the pace a farce needs. Even then, the storyline doesn’t have a lot of bumps along the way that would raise and dash expectations of the characters in a satisfyingly theatrical way. Clear arcs for the characters and a frenetic pace could make "Cakewalk" the sort of hit Broadway would embrace in 1917. It’s already got the musical score of the times; now it needs lyrics to match them and a book that will speed action along with clarity and drive.


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