By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Yes, my friends, you may have heard: There was a time when you could wear white socks with a suit in a non-ironic way. Nostalgia comes with a great band, first-rate singers, a fulsome sound track and dance breaks in the latest holiday musical extravaganza from the Mayfield.
In Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion by the mysterious Will Marks — a music archivist and curator of demonstrable expertise — a cast of eight apply themselves to the transitional period between the doo-wop ‘50s and the epochal British invasion of the mid-‘60s. And in the complications of the double-optic theatrical premise, as realized in Kate Ryan’s entertaining production, even the nostalgia has nostalgia. After all, it’s the 25-year reunion of the class of ’63 (go Rockaway High); the present is 1988.
Ergo … 40-somethings of the ‘80s are remembering the nerd crushes of first-period science, and slow-dancing to Blue Moon, doing the peppermint twist, hand-jiving, and wincing at yearbook predictions of their Grease years. They’re at a reunion of their younger selves, as arranged and hosted by a pair of intense Grade 12 kids who belong to the graduating class of ’88 but who (as conveyed by Melanie Piatocha) have a degree of take-charge brio that has defined party-planners since the medieval period. Jahlen Barnes, a versatile and dexterous singer, plays her pliant boyfriend and gofer.
Just as there’s inevitably a cool dude named Chip, who’s inevitably a quarterback and inevitably a hit with the gals in every graduating class since Abelard and Heloise went to the prom. Here Chip c.1988 is an elementary school football coach (Kieran Martin Murphy), by reputation a hot-shot in every sport and noted player of “back-seat bingo” in his high school years.
Anyhow, the intricacy of this premise requires an impressive degree of pizzaz and invention from the designers. T. Erin Gruber’s projections play across three screens and the tiled walls of the school gym, as a barrage of yearbook pictures, song lyrics, abstract psychedelic designs. Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting, from the harsh gym glare to more moody and romantic memory shots, is a boost. Leona Brausen’s wigs and costumes, a riot of pleated skirts and prom dresses, are a comedy in themselves, and step up to specific locations. (May I single out Bunny’s show-stopper red party dress, with a matching hair bow that has its own choreography when Stephanie Pitsiladis dances, as she is wont to do?).
And speaking of choreography, Christine Bandelow’s dance inventions are a veritable archive of styles, mashed potatoes and peppermint twists. Piatocha shakes her fringed frock like a refugee from What’s New Pussycat?.
The show, under Ryan’s direction, unspools as flashbacks of school life and extracurricular activities: The Diner, The Drive-In (Hitchcock’s The Birds is playing), The Locker Room, The Beach, The Classroom.… Four guys, who deliver doo-wop classics like The Great Pretender or The Wanderer, appear first as feet under cubicle doors in the boys’ can, and emerge as a fully-formed group.
A matching scene takes us to a pyjama party in a girl’s bedroom: four girls (Pitsiladis, Piatocha, Pamela Gordon, Simone Denny) and a medley that includes Johnny Angel, Be My Baby, Please Mr. Postman, such Brill Building products as One Fine Day.
The production has a breezy way with gender (boys don’t own the Elvis songs) and indicators like TV show themes. And the characters are lightly differentiated; Zimmerman, for example, is the rabbity science nerd who is “least likely to get a girlfriend” in his yearbook annotation. The muse of Ryan’s production is comic, and the theatrical challenge is how to animate a period that seems to exist in clichés. Intermission at the drive-in comes with life-size dancing ketchup and French fries. The Beach scene at the top of Act II, with Jan and Dean’s Surf City is an amusing black-light dance number for kids and surfboards.The lifeguard (Barnes) gets to sing I Will Follow You.
My fave flashback was Clubs, and the Glee Club’s contribution, a hybrid of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. I have to admit that my high school graduation theme was Climb Every Mountain. Geez, I hated remembering that.
The moments when the characters return to their present, and reflect on the life lessons they’ve learned from the ’60s, are less successful. And the oh-by-the-way scene that has the characters acknowledge, in passing, the impact on them of the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King seems particularly awkward.
Since the music is a kind of memory scrapbook, chronology and theme aren’t organizing principles. So a wave of music, from Sam Cooke to the Everly Brothers, Tequila to The Monster Mash, comes at you. As usual at the Mayfield, the musical values are strikingly high. The band, led by keyboardist Erik Mortimer, are stylistically savvy; the ensemble, all strong of voice, serves up a (very) generous song list of songs you know.
And you can have a cocktail (and dessert) with your nostalgia. There have to be some rewards for graduating.
Class of ’63: A Rockin’ Reunion
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre, 16615 109 Ave.
Written and compiled by: Will Marks
Directed by: Kate Ryan
Starring: Jahlen Barnes, Simone Denny, Pamela Gordon, Kieran Martin Murphy, Melanie Piatocha, Stephanie Pitsiladis, Brad Wiebe, Mike Zimmerman
Running: through Jan. 26
Tickets: 780-483-4051, mayfieldtheatre.ca