New Line Theatre gives ‘Celebration’ new life

Sean Michael and Larissa White in “Celebration.”
Sean Michael and Larissa White in “Celebration.”

Art is often a time capsule, and fearless New Line Theatre's ambitious production of the nearly forgotten "Celebration" reflects its era but also renews those themes.

The avant-garde musical by the duo Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, creators of "The Fantasticks," "I Do! I Do!" And "110 in the Shade," premiered on Broadway in 1969 — a time when people experimented with blank canvases.

Writers and composers addressed social changes during this period of tremendous upheaval. Youth culture had turned the U.S. upside down and art made bold statements: "The Graduate," Easy Rider," "Hair." Revolution was in the air.

The gentler "Celebration," despite a lovely poetic musical score, wasn't a comfortable fit on Broadway. Intimate spaces work better for its small ensemble and minimalist staging, and ta-da, the Marcelle black box suits the aesthetic.

In the years since its debut, Jones tinkered with the ending, and New Line is the first group to present his revision. The 88-year-old lyricist/book writer also plans to attend the show.

That's New Line's specialty — resurrecting neglected works and reinvigorating them.

Under the innovative co-direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, this restless relic gets a new dawn, and a swell cast seizes the day, strange as it may seem, focusing on the work's exclamation points and giving the characters context.

Resembling the vagabond troupes of "Godspell" and "Pippin," those early '70s darlings heavy on allegory and parables, "Celebration" mashed up ancient rituals and street theater to present its themes in broad strokes.

It sharply contrasts youth vs. age, innocence vs. corruption, poverty vs. wealth, and the eternal battle between summer and winter.

The setting is New Year's Eve, a symbolic time of regeneration, and conflicts arise among the clearly defined cast members.

The optimistic Orphan, played by a never-better Sean Michael, displays kindness and integrity as he seeks to preserve sunlight while preaching the joys of nature.

His desire to bring out goodness is noted in the heartfelt plea "My Garden" and "Fifty Million Years Ago" hits its target.

He encounters the beautiful Angel, a nakedly ambitious exotic dancer who is all business about fame.

Larissa White, who always lights up a stage, perfectly embodies this confident character without any hesitation, and with much poise, sings like an angel too.

She's sassy in "Somebody," with an amusing jaded chorus of female revelers.

White and Michael are strong in two duets, "I'm Glad to See You've Got What You Want," and "Under the Tree."

Although dazzled by the wealth of brash benefactor William Rosebud Rich, she is drawn to Orphan's sunny idealism.

The slimy Rich is played with customary zing by Zachary Allen Farmer, one of New Line's most versatile players.

With Orson Welles' bombast and a cruel touch of evil a la Bedford Falls' Mr. Potter, Rich oppresses without feeling, having amassed a fortune by manufacturing artificial goods.

Through Orphan's purity of spirit, the narcissistic megalomaniac finally feels something as he barks orders and devalues anyone in the other 98 percent.

Farmer bites and stings with glee, a delightful showy performance. He shines in such songs as "Bored" and "It's You Who Makes Me Young."

As the cynical and cunning narrator Potemkin, Kent Coffel is a commanding presence, smoothly delivering a character that's equal parts circus ringmaster, used car salesman and opportunistic shyster. He explains the stakes in "Survive" and "Not My Problem."

The four main characters meld in the romantic group number "Love Song," along with the Revelers, an energetic chorus of seven.

They wear gargoyle masks designed by Scott Schoonover and sprinkle glittery confetti in sync throughout the show.

Colin Dowd, Sarah Dowling, Christopher Lee, Todd Micali, Nellie Mitchell, Michelle Sauer and Kimi Short are the merry band of carousers.

Music Director Sarah Nelson crisply leads four other superb musicians in Schmidt's unmistakable compositions.

The finale is abrupt, although the conclusion seems inevitable given the trajectory and the piece's fragmented storyline.

While the show was created in turbulent times, pleading for a sliver of hope to emerge, its message — to survive in a very cold, cruel world is tough, but the noble choice, no matter how hard the struggle — remains timeless.


When: Thursdays — Saturdays through Oct. 22

Who: New Line Theatre

Where: The Marcelle Theater, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive (Grand Center)

Information: MetroTix 314-534-1111 or www.NewLineTheatre.com