Empire the Musical, as performed at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in January and February of 2016, had the potential to be a great show, but lacked real robustness and substance. The 20s themed musical hearkens to Thoroughly Modern Millie, with its large dance productions and a starring lady who is seeking to make it in the big, bad city. However, unlike its cousin, this musical lacked pizzazz. A more mature, spunky leading lady (Frankie) looking to make her mark in a man’s world crosses paths with the successful architect (Michale Shaw) of the soon to be Empire State building. As their relationship develops, Frankie must overcome obstacles to stay with this venture. A subplot follows the story of Ethan and Emily O’Downd; Irish immigrants seeking the quintessential American dream, yet face unexpected and abrupt tragedy.
The opening song, “Heydey,” demonstrated the splashy and energetic choreography that kept the show visually interesting. However, the dialogue was difficult to understand over the music and it left the audience in a haze of what the plot was or who was who–never a good place to start. This set the tone for the rest of the show; it was just a little bit off.
The set, made up of larger building blocks with doors that were brought forward to different depths on the stage, was used strategically to demonstrate the construction of the building. However, something seemed too basic about the set and would have benefited from some more complex pieces.
The character of Ethan O’Downd was given some of the best moments of the show. Ethan sings a beautiful ballad (“Castes in the Air”) to his expecting wife that encapsulates their pie in the sky desires for the future.
While the first act managed to keep building up, that momentum slowed to a crawl in the second act. The story slows down with a smaller plot of a rich heiress working on the building disguised as a man. I was disinterested as we had already been introduced to many interesting plot lines. They would have benefited from developing this already established characters. The combination of slow dialogue, dragging jokes, and multiple ballads prevented the production from really moving. More strong production, dance numbers like “Lunchtime” were desperately needed. This song showcased the strong athletic and gymnastic talents of the chorus men. The choreography played with the diverse cultural dances that were represented in the immigrants that had come to construct the Empire State Building.
While the book and songs themselves were nothing special, I would love to see this story refined and strengthened. The themes of booming industry, man’s desire to reach new heights, achieve dreams, and find their identity permeated the story, but didn’t quite hit home. The O’Downd’s story was able to achieve an emotional connection with the audience as it had levels and changes in the characters. Their genuine desire to achieve greatness was innocent and noble, only clouded by a bad accident. This tragic accident reflected the reality of placing your hope in something man made; it will always fail. This show will only prove successful when it can discover how to tap into these themes in a richer, fuller way. This was no fault of a talented cast. While it has the basic elements for construction, it is far from reaching the heights of a skyscraper. Faster dialogue, more dancing, and a general hit of energy will help this average show reach new heights.
All images by Michael Lamont