In addition to presenting classic musicals and touring shows, the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle has been hugely successful in creating new musicals. The theatre’s latest project, “Secondhand Lions,” is sure to be in that camp as well if a few tweaks are made. There is much to like in this production as it has so much going for it including some standout in the cast, great music and clever stage design. The problem seems to be too much of a good thing. This is a classic case of less=more.
Based on the New Line Cinema film, “Secondhand Lions” isn’t an original story, but it is an original production. It has all the elements of a classic musical, but overuses some of them while neglecting others. Impressively, the book is by Rupert – “Do You Like Pina-Coladas” – Holmes with music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. The songs have a feel of classics like “Oklahoma,” and “The Music Man” and the choreography, particularly for “Sand,” is really fun.
Not seeing the original film was of some benefit for me as I was able to judge the production on its own merits without comparing it to the movie. “Secondhand Lions” is a about a Walter, a 14 year old boy (played by Johnny Rabe) who is sent to live with his great uncles who he has never met who live in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Texas. It has been said that Garth (Gregg Edelman) and Hub (Mark Jocoby) have a criminal past and have a bunch of money holed up in their farmhouse somewhere. Ever the opportunist, Walter’s mother, Mae (Kendra Kassebaum) sends Walter there in hopes that he’ll find the money and make her rich. With no TV or neighbors nearby, things can be pretty lonely. Lucky for Walter, Uncle Garth likes to tell stories. Lucky for the audience, we get to not only hear, but see these stories come to life – and be edited on the spot at times.
From the moment Rabe begins to sing, you know that this kid has some incredible talent. Same goes for Sophie Anne Caruso who plays Jane, Walter antagonist-turned love interest. Unfortunately, the two are not as skilled when it comes to acting. They have all of their lines memorized for sure, but they pale in comparison to Edelman and Jocoby. The youth’s musical range is wide but they are pretty much one note when it comes to showing emotion. On the other end of the spectrum, Jason Danieley, who plays a Sultan, practically steals the show. He could almost play his part without saying a word as his eyes are very expressive. Edelman, Jacoby and Kassebaum are hard to beat as well.
So, the musical has all the makings of something great, but it tries too hard to include every element in the story. Frankly, “Lions” has too many characters in it. Unlike great musicals like “The Sound of Music,” the audience doesn’t really get to know any of the characters. Scenes that could be built up with true emotion are quickly passed by. Walter doesn’t really seem fazed to be left in the home of strangers and when he cries, you have no sympathy for him.
The program starts with an interesting spooky, mystery element in the uncles’ attic that would have been fun if it had been explored so more. Some special effects are clever, but don’t play out as well as they could and some scenes don’t really make sense. In one part of the story, people from all over come to the uncles’ home to help with a project, but the reason why is not shared. These guys are hermits and one uses his shotgun on a regular basis. Why would the townsfolk come to help? The finale song, “Worth Believin’ In,” feels forced and tacked on.
Perhaps I sound too negative, but in reality, I really liked this production. It has so much potential to be a great family production, but the story is too confusing at times for young ones to understand. The story doesn’t need to be “dumbed down,” but rather, focus on fewer characters and fewer storylines. The adventure stories are very fun, but again, there’s no real reason to care for the characters in the flashback stories.
Okay, it’s not just me. The 5th Avenue folks want to hear your opinions as well. Not only would they love for you to attend a show, but they would love to hear your comments afterward as well.
“Secondhand Lions” continues only through October 6, so make plans now. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7:00 p.m. on Sunday. Two matinees are also offered at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. The 5th Avenue Theatre is located at 1308 5th Ave. in Seattle. Tickets start at $29 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 206.625.1900.
Finally, have you seen the show? If so, tell us what you thought of it.