New Faces

Wesly Anthony Clergé and Haley Gustafson in "New Faces Sing Broadway 1979" from Porchlight Music Theatre, filmed at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on June 12. 

When Porchlight Music Theatre moved its six-year-old “New Faces Sing Broadway” series online last winter because of COVID-19, I was delighted. Before that, the shows —inspired by eponymous New York musical revues produced from 1934 to 1968 and each devoted to a single year of Broadway openings — had only a couple of performances, so there was no purpose to reviewing them. Now people would be able to stream them on demand for several weeks.

The move to a virtual format had other benefits, too. While the audience absence left a void, the professional videotaping showed off the chosen venues to good advantage, and the ten up-and-coming performers in each production were nicely showcased individually and in small groups. The accompanying historical information and other material — Broadway posters, programs, stills, film clips —arguably was clearer on a computer screen than on the big movie screen used for the live shows. And Porchlight kept its traditional sing-alongs and theater quiz questions, even though we had to participate from home.

Happily, the pandemic is easing, and for its first live, in-person production of 2021, Porchlight picked “New Faces Sing Broadway 1979.” Hosted by Alexis J. Roston and directed by Brianna Borger, it features Micah Beauvais, Adia Bell, Chloe Belongilot, Wesly Anthony Clergé, Haley Gustafson, Drew Mitchell, Mia Nevarez, Laura Quiñones, Christopher Ratliff and Nathe Rowbotham.

But there's a catch. The show was only live and in person for one performance — on June 12 in the parking lot of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts as part of Skokie’s Out Back Summer Sessions. It was filmed, however, and is available digitally for the rest of the month.

For an at-home audience, this hybrid is a mixed bag. The rather makeshift stage is set up with a roadway behind it, and watching the cars go by is a distraction, as are the attempts to shoot everything from different angles in the fading, uneven light. The singers aren't choreographed or videotaped all that well, so the decision to introduce them with onscreen photos is a good idea. Projections from the Broadway shows on a big movie screen behind the performers aren't always visible, and they often differ from those on our computer screens. Occasional long shots of the audience splayed out all over the parking lot are amusing; individuals wandering in front of the camera, sometimes blocking out the three-person band — Linda Madonia (music director, keyboards), Marcel Reimão Bonfim (bass) and Justin Akira Kono (drums) — are not.

As for the 75-minute show itself, 1979 wasn't the best year for Broadway. It did yield “Evita,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and “They're Playing Our Song,” as well as a few notable revivals. But there were some I've never heard of, such as “Carmelina,” “Platinum” and “But Never Jam Today.” One or two, I'd forgotten about, namely “King of Hearts” and “Sugar Babies.” 

The Porchlight lineup also includes a couple of musicals that closed after a single performance and flops with somewhat longer runs like “The Grand Tour.” It closes with “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” which acually made its Broadway debut in mid-1978. The spirited sing-alongs are “Get Me to the Church on Time” from “An Evening with Lerner & Loewe” and “I Won't Grow Up” from “Peter Pan.”

A few of the songs are up-tempo, but the preference seems to be for ballads, some of them beautiful, if obscure. Sometimes, the gender of the singer is changed from the original. For example, Belongilot's rendition of “Johanna” from “Sweeney Todd” is lovely. All of the New Faces have their moments, but Ratliff strikes me as one to watch. Roston acquits herself well as host and has a nifty outfit complete with a pert little hat.

On the down side, the women tend to become shrill in the upper registers, and one or two classics, among them “A Little Priest” from “Sweeney Todd,” are...well, butchered. Overall, though, I hope Porchlight continues offering the “New Faces Sing Broadway” series online as an alternative even when live theater fully returns.

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