Academy of Music, Northampton, MA
World Premier One-Time Performance
By Tim O’Brien
How often does a western Massachusetts audience have the opportunity to take in a world premiere of new musical theatre? Well, after watching Dean Parker Presentations’ Northampton debut of his musical comedy “Mr. Mambo,” this reviewer answers, “Not as often as we should,” because this light-fare homage to the stylings of 80’s mall songstress Tiffany is off to a terrific start, smack out of the gate.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, “Mambo” is a so-called “jukebox musical,” where songs by popular artists are strung together to tell a story, or at least amplify the plot. (See the ABBA-driven “Mama Mia” for one of the best-grossing examples of the type.)
California-based actor/writer Parker served as executive producer and crafted the book. Plot-wise, it’s reminiscent of “Grease” and “Bye-Bye Birdy”; Pennsylvania nice-guy Johnny (Jarod Bakum) has a crush on classmate Kristen (Ally Reardon) but is barely on her radar screen; she’s obsessed with possible stardom on the “Dance America” TV show. Not exactly heavyweight stuff. But no worries – here, the fun’s all in the journey.
Reardon consistently delights with her big smile and good-kid delivery; she also sings the living daylights out of whatever's handed to her. Bakum seems a bit stiff as the smitten male ingénue but handles his songs well and occasionally pulls out a saxophone to accompany the recorded score; extra points earned for that talent. Second leads Casey (Tina Sparkle) and Danny (Arnaldo Rivera) are both excellent as the high-school couple that hits the skids in the midst of the dance-show drama. Aileen Merino Terzi is strong as the cattily calculating dancer Amber Cattrell, and Lauren Duquette has a nice turn as the sharp-tongued but good-hearted show-runner. The biggest laughs come when Silk Johnson is onstage; he portrays over-the-top dance show host Eric Archer as a talented but unwitting blowhard and pulls it off with real charm. The chorus ably sings, dances and smiles as it should.
Director Bob Sands has molded a cast of mostly-youthful performers into a very solid ensemble. With no prior productions to help inform the production, he’s brought the book’s raw vision to life with wit and energy. Musical director Michael Rheault (no stranger to new musicals) has teased excellent vocals and harmonies from the lead performers and chorale alike. Kudos as well to veteran choreographer David Bovat; the cast bounds their way through some clever moves.
Off-Broadway “workouts” provide directors and producers with the opportunity to take some chances and make mistakes as they hone a show to be its ultimate best self. Other than some relatively slow set changes and an apparently migratory tree, “Mr. Mambo” delivered the goods in a genuinely entertaining fashion.