Once Around the Sun
nytheatre.com review by Liz Kimberlin
August 10, 2005
Remember the episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg Brady thinks he’s about to become a rock star on the basis of his talent—only to be devastated when he finds out it’s just because he fits in the sequined suit? Well, Once Around the Sun is pretty much a longer version of that episode, although The Brady Bunch had a more sophisticated plot with more complex characters.
Kevin Stevens ekes out a pathetic income playing weddings and bar mitzvahs in Queens with an orchestra led by his perpetually inebriated, embittered uncle/foster father Lane Stevens. On the side, Kevin obsessively pursues gigs and unsuccessful recording ops for his floundering rock band, B-Side, of which his true love and fiancée, Skye, is a part. Then Kevin catches the eye of Nona Blue, a glamorous pop diva-turned-businesswoman who wants to help him achieve the fame and glory he deserves. Only he has to relocate to L.A. and give up his girl, his band and all of his principles to do it.
This is a story so old-fashioned and banal that if any plot twists take you by surprise, you seriously need help. There is not an original moment, note, lyric, line or character to be found in the show’s two hours-twenty minutes. Further, Once Around the Sun is an unrelenting, unapologetic, orgiastic tribute to the best hits of yesterday and today on Lite FM. To sum up, there’s no other word for it but the cliché du jour: cheesy.
It was fabulous. One long grin, innumerable winces and groans, and several wild cheers. And that was just from me—although, fortunately, the rest of the audience seemed to agree. The production is blessed from behind the scenes to the front with talent, energy, benign cynicism, and audacity, as well as a great deal of shrewd practicality. The Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “I’m gonna be a singing sensation, just you wait and see!” story, directed by Jace Alexander, is played straight with the kitsch and camp kept to a minimum. When, in all sincerity, smarmy, drunken lounge singer Lane Stevens croons swing lyrics like “Now time has flown and I’ve lost all my ‘druthers / See, I’m a fool like all the others,” and (my fave) “Don’t be a fool like I,” it’s that much funnier.
The cast of seven is superb and made up of some celebrated theatre and TV performers who really know the business and how to work a show. Plus, all of them are accomplished musicians, and their singing voices are not only incredible but blend beautifully. Everybody gets a moment in the spotlight, and it’s hard to say who—or what (a dress, for instance)—finally takes home the “stole the show” trophy.
As Kevin, Asa Somers (recently of Taboo and Dance of the Vampires) is the show’s workhorse and brings a lot of stray-puppy, gorgeous-rock-star charm to a vapid character that it’s hard to give a [bleep] about. Although he came off to me more like a surfer-dude (a la Bill & Ted) than a sharp kid from Queens, Somers has a great voice, and he sure looked like he was playing his own guitar throughout.
Just when it seemed that the embarrassingly beautiful, talented Maya Days (Aida, Rent) might actually be wasted in Once Around the Sun, she gets a dazzling Whitney Houston-meets-Funny Girl finale and stops the show not only with her amazing voice, but with her costume. (You have to see it to believe it.) As an alcoholic, gone-to-seed “shoulda-been,” John Hickok (Little Women, Aida) is, ironically, quite the heartthrob hottie playing Kevin’s uncle, Lane Stevens. Described as “born in a tux singing ‘Hava Nagila’,” Lane was the only character that I actually cared about, and the only one written with any real attempt at depth. In his solo, “Fool Like Me,” Hickok eerily manages to evoke Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Steve Lawrence, and, God help us, Wayne Newton all at once.
In a dual role, New York soap veteran Kevin Mambo first plays Ray, the B-Side’s malcontent who has a stick up his butt about Waldo, a rising, umm, “singing” star puked out from VH-1 and reality TV hell, who seems to beat B-Side to every label deal and public appearance. In Act Two, Mambo also plays aforementioned Waldo, a uniquely untalented but enthusiastic individual whose fame seems to be the result of his supreme confidence in his “giving over to his higher power,” and makes him almost endearing. The highlight of the night for me was Mambo/Waldo’s vigorous performance of the “genius” hit single: “G-I-R-L.”
Although deliberately derivative, Once Around the Sun nonetheless has a very tuneful score, with music and lyrics by Robert Morris, Steven Morris, and Joe Shane. Some of the songs, like the title song, are actually infectious. Kellie Overbey, who wrote the libretto, wisely keeps the formulaic plot simple. To remind us that it’s 2005, not 1947, she has included some scenes at a men’s room urinal, celebrity shagging, MTV references, and liberal use of the "f"-word. Costuming, including Nona Blue’s special guest star dress, is by Daniel Lawson. There’s little in the way of set furniture, but some of the scenery backdrops by Beowulf Boritt are pretty cool. The funky, nouveau atmosphere of the venue itself, the Zipper Theatre (a converted zipper factory), goes a long way toward contributing to the show’s cheeky pizzazz. Special mention should go to the sound technicians T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella for keeping the music to a manageable decibel level and not blasting the audience’s ears out, for which I was eternally grateful.
But, seriously, guys—"Don’t be a fool like I."?