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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Jun. 6, 2017 6 months ago

Theater review: 'Burt & Me'

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The dream of love gets a Burt Bacharach soundtrack in FST’s 'Burt & Me.'
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Larry McKenna's “Burt & Me” is Florida Studio Theatre’s current summer distraction. You might guess it’s a Muppet memory play about Ernie’s volatile relationship with his buddy Burt, but you’d be wrong. The “Burt” in question is Burt Bacharach. If you’re guessing it’s a jukebox musical, you’d be right. But there’s more to it.

McKenna isn’t shoehorning Bacharach’s tunes into a cooked-up narrative. His tale is a coming-of-age story, and a thinly disguised autobiography. Joe (Jordan Ahnquist), his pianist protagonist, talks to you directly. Before Bacharach, his childhood piano lessons were torture. After Bacharach, they’re pure bliss. Henceforth, our hero worships at the Church of St. Burt.

Jordan Ahnquist and Jillian Louis. Photo by Matthew Holler.

This harmonic hagiography stays in the background of a love story — of the boy-gets-girl-loses-girl-then-finally-gets-girl variety. McKenna’s rom-com revolves around Joe and Lacey (Jillian Louise) — two high school sweethearts who share a love for Bacharach, basketball and each other. But after they go away to college, their relationship cracks under the strain of separation. After graduating, Joe cooks up a Bacharach-themed scheme to get Lacey back.

Evidently, that’s not too far from the truth. But McKenna doesn’t aim for realism. Joe’s first-person narrative gives substance to his character. (Kudos to Ahnquist for a 200-watt performance) But the peripheral characters are stylized. The playwright conveys the 1970s youth scene with pop-culture shorthand. Joe’s friend Jerry (Nick Anastasia) might be cutting class from an episode of “Welcome Back Kotter.” Lacey’s pal Sally (Stacey Harris) seems to have fled from “Grease.” Joe’s father is ideal; his priest could qualify for sainthood. (Both played by Michael Marotta.) Winning performances all round.

But, except for Joe, they’re all stock characters. But I think that’s intentional. Nostalgia is a liar, after all. Happy memories always look like sit-coms. Especially the ones involving your teenage heartthrob. Or the music you liked at age 14.

Jillian Louis and Stacey Harris. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Love and music.

Depending on your perspective, they’re much ado about nothing, or the two most important things in the world.

Director Jason Cannon and choreographer Kathryn Gasper whip up this frothy fantasy to a fare-thee-well, with musical direction by Brian Victor and a four-piece band on stage. (Who give Joe a hard time on a make-or-break date with Lacey.) Jeff Dean’s lounge-lizardy set, Sarah Bertolozzi’s “Saturday Night Fever”-ish costumes and Thom Beaulieu’s lush lighting make this hazy dream of teenage romance complete.

Jordan Ahnquist. Photo by Matthew Holler.

And, of course, Bacharach’s tunes form a perfect soundtrack for Joe’s hormonal hilarity. And there’s a lot of them. The usual suspects like “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “Promises, Promises,” “The Look of Love,” “Walk on By,” “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” But also surprises, including the title theme to the 1967 “Casino Real,” and the Carpenters’ hit “Close to You.”

If these tunes do a better job of storytelling than most, give credit to Hal David’s lyrics. A good lyricist has to be a good psychologist. And David is great. Thanks to his keen sense of human motivation, the songs carry the narrative without seeming contrived. Usually.

“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” is the one false note — a big production involving raincoats and twirling umbrellas. To me, it doesn’t fit the story. It’s a song about acting happy when you feel unhappy; a song about fighting depression and holding faith that the inexplicable darkness will end. It’s not a happy tune, kids. And it shouldn’t be a group number.

But even Bacharach’s sad songs make you feel good.

Jordan Ahnquist. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Based on the opening night response, the FST audience did.

Heck, I did.

McKenna’s script is well-written. Joe’s story is warm, winning and sincere. But Bacharach’s music is what gets everybody on their feet.

Let’s face it.

The musical’s book could’ve been a WPA drama about rural electrification. With tunes by Bacharach and David …

There would’ve still been a standing ovation.

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