The greatest 1960s girl group that never was is hitting the stage again at Florida Studio Theatre. Yes, the
Prima Donnettes are back. The girls are setting the musical Wayback Machine to the middle of the last century one more time. “Dancin’ in the Street.” is their latest revue. Dancing. Dig it. In this brave new world of Ebola and ISIS, it’s nice to recall a time when dancing was seen as a revolutionary act. And speaking of revolutions …
Last year’s performance had a feminist subtext. This year’s focus is more personal, less political. Good pop tunes, natch. But let’s be clear. Music snobs may sneer at hit pop songs. Try writing one.
The best pop songs are mini-ballads. Vivid characterizations. Little stories, with beginnings, middles and ends. Distillations of self, soul and longing that fit the Procrustean Top 40 format.
The permutations of the soul aren’t that complicated. There’s the sweet, I’m-so-happy-falling-in-love song, the you’re-dumping-me-my-heart-is-broken song, the I’m-dumping-you-get-lost song, the I’m-going-to-pay-you-back song, the I’ll-pick-myself-up-and-start-over song. This revue delivers these changes filtered through implied characters.
Two actor/singers return from last year: Jannie Jones and Liz Power. Their characters return as well.
Jones’ persona is young, gifted and black in the spirit of Aretha Franklin. (A 16-show FST veteran, she has the talent and charisma to pull it off.) She casually blows the audience away with numbers like “Fever,” “He’s So Fine,” (proving conclusively to my ears that George Harrison did rip off The Chiffons) and “Respect.” Original takes, always. And what a voice. The Motown mojo flows through Jones’ veins.
Power’s character didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. She’s no naïf, this kid. Her songs deal with such worldly-wise issues as physical violence as a corrective to character assassination (“My Boyfriend’s Back”), the lousy snap judgments of human hormones (“It’s So Easy to Fall in Love”) and the temporality of eternal vows, (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”).
Courtney Stokes and Melissa Robinette are the two newcomers. (We’re told a humorous story about how the two previous cast members were diverted, one by a motorcycle trip, the other by a pregnancy. And left to figure out who’s who.) As to their new characters …
Stokes is a wide-eyed innocent — a hope fiend, to quote a certain Pied Piper of the 1960s. There’s no hint of disillusionment in her early songs. From “Then He Kissed Me” to “Chapel of Love” to “I Hear a Symphony,” it’s love’s illusions, every time. But there’s a subtle shift, from the anthemic “I am Woman” to the mournful ballad of “Delta Dawn” — a study of a woman who never woke from her illusions .
Robinette is the wildcard. She sings her share of “hope fiend” songs, including the high-octane romanticism of “Please Mr. Postman” and “To Know Him is to Love Him.” She also belts out an anthem of her own — “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” She also sings the titular “Dancin’ in the Street,” which isn’t so much an anthem as an infectiously joyful celebration of life. Quentin Tarantino and/or Nancy Sinatra fans will appreciate Robinette’s shattering rendition of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” But you can’t keep a good woman down — as her crowd-pleasing take on “I Will Survive” proves.
Director and choreographer Dennis Courtney keeps a snappy pace, a seamless transition song to song, and a ’60s groove to the accompanying dances. Jim Prosser burns up the piano—and it’s all the audience can do not to start dancing in the street for real.
Richard Hopkins and Jim Prosser developed this high-energy, feel-good revue, with additional songs from Rebecca Hopkins. They stopped short of creating a jukebox musical, but get pretty darn close. Their tunes don’t quite add up to one big story, but do tell the tales of the four implied characters — in a haunting double exposure with the tales of the characters in the original songs.
This year, the Prima Donnettes bring their personas to life. This year, their songs are more personal than political. They come off as three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood women. You hear them roar. (And that’s the most liberating anthem of all.)
They will make you feel like dancing.
IF YOU GO
“Dancin’ in the Street with the Prima Donnettes” runs through Feb. 5, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Court Cabaret, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information
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