Trip of Love — a Love Note From Japan
Trip of Love, one of the most curious productions in recent memory, thankfully continues its energetic run at Stage 42. Offbeat and gorgeous, it’s also one of the most entertaining and consistently professional around, with the best looking cast, on or off-Broadway and certainly one of the hardest working in any show now running in New York.
Literally a song and dance show with no dialogue to distract, the back to back songs built on an Alice in Wonderland setup, provide the simple (some might say simplistic) but necessary narrative arc. Dance propels the action, with a terrific ensemble of singers that can really dance and dancers that can really sing, a rare thing to see at this high a level. This show demands a lot from its cast, and without exception, they all more than meet those demands.
Audiences wandering in expecting the nostalgia-fest of Rock of Ages or Mamma Mia may be a bit confused since the show isn’t the usual revue or greatest-hits collection, and the selection of classic songs and their sequence can come off as an odd mix to a New York ear. The reason for this — unfortunately not at all stressed — is that Trip of Love is a Japanese import, created in part for a Japanese audience, its structure a subtle but pretty specific, warm and fun tribute to American music and culture of the 1960's, accent on fun.
You see it in the somewhat roller coaster selection of songs, a virtual checklist of Japanese favorite American hits of the 60’s; in the Moon River tableau and ballet; in the absolutely stunning and authentic costumes by Gregg Barnes, of whose amazing number, craftsmanship and detail not enough can be said or described: from the lovely chanteuse/commère’s craftily designed kimonos to the bridesmaid’s outfits, which appear only for a moment as a visual accent, but which would make any Japanese bride’s heart sing.
You see it in the sexy, wonderfully choreographed and executed Taiko drum number that opens the second act, a clever take on the ceremonial Lion Dance which not incidentally is traditionally performed to open wedding ceremonies in Japan and which leads right into the wedding Up Up and Away number that follows; and you see it in the unsubtle but effective and impressive anti-war message from a culture that's experienced its own unique brunt of war.
Directed, choreographed and designed by James Walksi (whose Joffrey/ABT/Agnes DeMille/Broadway/Ballanchine/Vegas and Starlight Express credits must be among the most quirky and diverse around), Trip of Love is a labor of love, tremendously well researched and executed. The great orchestrations by Martyn Axe, ingeniously and seamlessly knit the decade’s songs and changing styles, played by a kick-ass pit band whose pitch-perfect authenticity and energy rock the house.
The terrific cast is a true ensemble in this fast-paced evening, all game and energetic, performing all-out the difficult, tricky, wry and demanding choreography with deceptive ease, all stars here, each dancer and singer a double or triple threat, everyone evenly matched.
Laurie Wells is the evening’s chanteuse and guide, whose gorgeous legit voice pushes ahead and past her occasionally difficult musical set-ups, managing to consistently win over audiences with quiet humor and undeniable talent. Tara Palsha could stop traffic with her stunning, sultry looks, which are more than matched by her voice; has You Don’t Own Me ever been sung with less pity or more authority and presence?
Kelly Felthous is infectiously cheerful and unrelentingly game as the evening’s “Alice,” managing to pull off the extremes of singing both Connie Francis and Grace Slick in one night, and more than matching both. Dionne Figgins sings and dances — simultaneously and amazingly — with an enormous voice and personality that stops the show with each of her numbers, and an incandescent smile that lights up and fills the theatre each time she steps on stage.
Joey Calveri seems to have teleported from 1967, and his earthy vocals and presence convey the musical spirit of the times with authenticity and verve. Brandon Leffler manages to almost casually keep topping himself physically as his evening’s demanding dance numbers build from Vespa to Samba to his quick, nonchalant rock and roll backflip.
Yesenia Ayala’s lovely, languorous and beautiful Ipanema Girl is simultaneously sharp and still, both hot and cool with an unexpected but well-placed wit; and Austin Miller’s deceptive tenor voice runs the stylistic gamut of the 60’s, from sweet folk to the passionate rock and roll that frees up his powerful and surprising range.
Finally, in a chorus of very strong dancers whose collective work just gets better and tighter, Whitney Cooper, Alexa De Barr and Ashley Blair Fitzgerald stand out for their sharp technique, presence and quiet humor.
All in all, Trip of Love is a great evening, a wonderful cast dancing and singing in top form, enjoying themselves and sharing that joy with audiences that may at times be a bit confused going in, but are always on their feet applauding by the last encore.
— René Grayre, May 2016
© René Grayre All rights reserved