The new musical comedy at Pasadena Playhouse may be named after South Street, the famous touristy district in Philadelphia known for its colorful night scene and eclectic air, but what it delivers is a promising production mired by a bland script and flat story.
Set in the late 20th century at a time when scrunchies and neon leggings were the rage, South Street — music and lyrics by Richard Addrisi, book by Craig Carlisle and direction by Roger Castellano — tells the tales of a South Street bar called Sammy’s Place.
Sammy’s Place is more than a bar; it is an historic fixture that evolved from a firehouse to a strip joint (The Brass Pole) to a local favorite hangout spot that hosts the popular annual Full Moon Festival, created by owner Sammy as a celebration of good times with friends old and new.
It is also home to an unconventional “family:” Sammy (Tom Shelton) and his smart-mouthed wife Sybil (Valerie Perri); Sammy’s good friends, hearty Lou (Harrison White) and polyester-donning Arnie (Ezra Buzzington); and the newest addition, the vagabond siblings Cloe (Maria Eberline) and Norton (Matthew Patrick Davis and Andy Scott Harris as young Norton).
The musical begins in 1997 with Cloe getting ready for the Full Moon Festival.
Things have changed since she first auditioned for a pole-dancing gig at Sammy’s Place 17 years ago. It’s been a year since Sammy passed away and left his club to Cloe, who is now a single mother to a teenage daughter named Crystal (Cassie Silva).
A flashback to 1980 reveals Crystal is born from an old affair with the club’s pianist Johnny (Brent Schindele), who doesn’t know about his daughter and has since left town to pursue his rock‘n’roll career.
Though the themes of friendship and love are predictable and simple, the plot hops all over the place; there’s no definite “hook” to the story.
The main plotline seems to be about the threat against Cloe’s ownership of Sammy’s Place when she gets served a boxful of IOUs by two hooligan brothers who plan to eradicate the club’s longstanding traditions — and rename it Booby Bar and Deli (“For hot girls and coleslaw!”).
But then it also seems to be about the romance between Cloe and Johnny. The play, however, doesn’t invest enough time into the personal intricacies of the characters for the audience to care.
In fact, the first act seems to jump between several minor scenes instead of following one major cohesive thread.
One moment, it’s Johnny flirtatiously coaxing Cloe to smile for him (“Say Cheese”); the next, it’s Sammy and Lou dancing to their friendship (“Best of Friends”). Soon Sammy holds the first Full Moon Festival and toasts to the rabbit in the moon, symbolizing the magic of life, and then suddenly Johnny’s gone on a music road trip and Cloe is ignoring his calls.
Too many characters and subplots are squeezed into a single act, as well as a couple of numbers seem completely unnecessary. That could slide by if the tunes were catchy and the choreography dazzling, but neither is original or tantalizing enough to keep the audience from wondering when the curtain will close for intermission.
Thankfully, both song and dance heat up by the second act. One of the best scenes is the dance competition during the 1997 Full Moon Festival, in which three couples dance it out in sultry tango or zippy swing, earning delighted hoots and whistles from the audience.
Specifically, the number “Cool Dad,” performed by Crystal and her friends (Jacqueline Nguyen and Hannah Simmons), is fun and spunky, capturing the awkwardness of teenage years with cheesy yet exuberant choreography and tunes.
Despite the contrived storylines and a few lackluster numbers, the South Street cast is brilliant in its talents and passion. Every cast member has a distinct voice and charm, projecting as much personality as possible within the limited script. The lines and lyrics may be corny, but the cast shines through with enough hilarious one-liners to keep the audience entertained.
The set by Andy Walmsley is beautiful, reminiscent of the bohemian atmosphere of Philadelphia’s South Street, and the vibrant costumes by Kate Bergh draw nostalgia for those early decades of leg warmers and bushy side ponytails.
South Street might not be destined for Broadway, but like the Philly charm, it’s got its own lovely soul and flavor. At the very least, the musical will destine a jovial night of entertaining fun.