Porchlight Music Theatre is kicking off its all-virtual autumn with a welcome alternative to Zoom plays that fits the digital format surprisingly well.
“Broadway by the Decade,” a 45-minute revue narrated by artistic director Michael Weber, combines a succinct history of the Broadway musical from the late 1800s to the present with 10 songs, one from a hit show of each decade. They range from “Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man” (“Show Boat”) to “She Used to Be Mine” (“Waitress”) and are sung by seven tremendously talented artists, all of whom have performed at Porchlight among other venues.
To make the musical segments more interesting, they've been videotaped all over Porchlight's industrial-rustic rehearsal space at 4200 W. Diversey Ave. Videographer Austin Packard used a single digital camera, but shot each scene several times, then edited the takes to showcase a variety of angles.
Enhanced by complementary lighting (no designer is listed in the program), the high-quality results are often captivating, sometimes a bit strange. For “Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man,” for example, Packard and Weber create a vignette of Darilyn Burtley in a red dress on a stool next to a white piano played by music director Michael McBride, backed by red-velvet curtains and large potted palms that suggest a nightclub of the era.
On the other hand, in the kitchen used to tape the number from “Waitress,” Lucy Godinez is occasionally shown from behind with a view out the window, which is somewhat distracting. Most offbeat is the sequence with Blu and Donterrio Johnson crooning “Guys and Dolls” from the eponymous show as they amble down a long hallway. Credit for the overall sophistication also goes to director of production Alex Rhyan and audio engineer and sound mixer Eric Backus.
What really makes “Broadway by the Decade” work, though, is the way Weber's storytelling is integrated with the performances, something he could not have done as effectively in a live performance. He uses a wide array of stunning old photos, posters, and programs culled from his personal collection and the internet to illustrate an informative summary of each decade, as well as several rare film clips, such as those of “The Hot Mikado” and “The Swing Mikado,” two 1930s interpretations by African American troupes of the Gilbert & Sullivan classic.
Weber races through precursors like French and Viennese operettas, vaudeville, and burlesque, but he draws interesting connections between early genres and later manifestations. He also drops fascinating tidbits, such as the assertion that 1860's “The Black Crook” — a show I hadn't heard of — opened the way for the American musical.
The downside of such a rich subject is that it also reminds us just how much has to be excluded. Every decade, especially the earlier ones, produced so many wonderful shows and songs that a few of his choices for the performances are disappointing.
Though the opener and closer both are compelling, my favorite number is “Anything You Can Do” from the 1940s' “Annie Get Your Gun,” a competitive duet that Michelle Lauto, who has Ethel Merman–worthy pipes, and velvet-voiced James Earl Jones II pull off with aplomb. Along with Burtley and McBride they turn “I Got Rhythm” from “Girl Crazy” into an exercise in intriguing harmonies. Jones II, a Court Theatre regular, also makes “Who Am I?” from “Les Miserables” an emotional tour de force.
Less riveting are “Don't Rain On My Parade” from 'Funny Girl,” “My Own Best Friend” from “Chicago” (simply not the song I'd choose from that show), and the title song from “Beauty & the Beast.” “You Don't Know/I Am the One” from “Next to Normal” is moving in its original context, but it doesn't have the same impact here, despite the effort to create a room setting for Neala Barron, Johnson, and Blu.
The one staging detail I'd change is that the performers never look directly at the camera, so they seem to be gazing off somewhere into the distance, at least for the solos. Letting them make a direct connection would draw us in more.
Porchlight has two more pay-to-view revues on its schedule: “New Faces Sing Broadway 1987” with host Larry Adams, which is being filmed this month without an audience at the Studebaker Theatre and will be available for viewing Nov. 6 – 29, and “Happy Holidays from Porchlight!,” which will be available for viewing Dec. 11 – Jan. 3, 2021.
The theater also is collaborating with L.A. Theatre Works on two audio-only productions: the updated version of the adaptation of Studs Terkel's “Working,” available Oct. 16 – Nov. 8, and Luis Valdez's “Zoot Suit,” available Nov. 27 – Dec. 8. Both are original radio broadcasts recorded before a live audience at the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, in 1999 and 2001 respectively.
Free virtual programming, such as the Sondheim @ 90 Roundtable and Movie Musical Mondays, continues too.