The following review is based on the May 11th performance.
Unlike some tentpole film franchises, there are no depreciating returns with Rockwell Table & Stage’s UMPO series, which remains just as gut-bustingly funny with its 12th installment, “The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Clueless, which is scheduled to run through September 1st in Los Feliz.
The fabulous farce, based on Amy Heckerling’s 1995 high school classic starring Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Stacey Dash, the late Brittany Murphy, Donald Faison, Breckin Meyer, and others, is once again the brainchild of Artistic Director, Executive Producer, creator, and writer Kate Pazakis. Rockwell’s resident genius has been on an unprecedented roll for the past few years, highlighted by her talent to reimagine pop-culture phenomena by incorporating not only an appropriately modern bent, but extra helpings of humor, to go along with dynamic dancing, and the singing of hits spanning the last four decades.
Pazakis is undoubtedly joined by heavy hitters in Musical Director Gregory Nabours, who particularly excels at splicing mashups of songs, oftentimes from different eras and genres; Choreographer Mallory Butcher, whose sweeping ensemble numbers are as lively as can be; Production and Costume designer Chadd McMillan, who, in this case, really does transport us back to the carefree mid-90s; Sound Designer BJ Marchini, who ensures that the performers are always heard; and Lighting Designer Joey Guthman, who illuminates “Clueless” with a saucily suitable pink glow.
Longtime actor Jimmy Smagula makes his Rockwell debut as the director of this coming-of-age production, which spotlights protagonist and near 16-year-old Cher Horowitz, already a Beverly Hills socialite among her peers, who lives with her father and step-brother, Josh. Despite some common, and not so common, family drama, Cher is very much in control as the center of attention, flanked by her gal pal, Dionne. Yet, Cher, who is also based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” is also altruistic, and thus becomes matchmaker and makeover guru, particularly with respect to the new girl in town, Tai.
Smagula’s direction has lended itself to a very brisk 90-minute show (including a 10 minute intermission), which manages to entertain in gloriously gratuitous fashion and tie together the plot, pulled by the substantive weight of its triple-threat cast members (the show is double-cast). These individuals are certifiable titans of multitasking on stage, zipping through a myriad of costume changes, and positioning themselves rapidly among the joyful patrons.
Anna Grace Barlow is the charming, albeit naive Cher, who can seemingly chew bubblegum and sing well, simultaneously. Cher is not as lost as she seems and is capable of interesting insights (e.g., “You’re such a victim of circumstance, Josh”), which Barlow delivers in a more subtly complex manner than one would think. Barlow impresses with her solo numbers, too, such as with Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and Lisa Loeb’s “Stay,” whereby she emotes a pleasant tonality that ingratiates her character to us. Though where she really stands out is when she quickly lays down the verses of MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This,” side by side with Matthew Bohrer’s Josh, who synchronously croons R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”
Bohrer accurately aligns himself with the sensibilities that Paul Rudd brought to the likable and unassuming Josh. Whereas the others are often outlandish, Bohrer wins us over with his character’s innocence while singing sentimental pieces like Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (also featuring a nice harmony by the cast), and by simply being undeterred even when Lesley McKinnell’s Lucy (the maid) hurries past him, hilariously muttering words teeming with irritability.
McKinnell arguably has to be in the most places at once as also Amber and Miss Geist, and in a memorable moment, even calls attention to it. Besides having an excellent voice, McKinnell is remarkable for her comic timing and outrageous facial expressions, especially when her Miss Geist gets a makeover and then falls in love with Marquell Clayton’s Mr. Hall, rubbing his knees and splitting his legs open, on the bar top, all the while dueting the R&B former No.1 song, “Friends and Lovers.” It’s as ridiculous as one can imagine, but is also equal parts slapstick and sweet. Clayton, moreover, excels as the jaw-jutting and hot-tempered dad, Mel, a wealthy litigator, and as the school heartthrob, Elton, who gets down with Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It.”
As Dionne, Janaya Mahealani Jones brings a can’t-miss presence about her that communicates youth and empowerment in one fierce package, poking fun at Stacey Dash’s short-lived attempt at becoming a Republican congresswoman. Courtney Bruce plays the opposite sex in Murray, who is in a tumultuous relationship with Dionne. Bruce has a powerfully robust voice, belting with the force of a thousand gales that are just as intensely melodious. Her energy is unmistakable during songs like Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” TLC’s “No Scrubs,” and more, when her skills cannot be denied. The last of the women is Nohely Quiroz as Tai, who brings a wildly fun disposition to her role with an uproariously unhinged version of Hanson’s “MMMBop,” and then ramps up the sensuality factor with Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” as she lets loose with liberated vocals.
Finally, Zack Colonna is notable for thoroughly immersing himself in two characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar from each other: Travis, the stoned skater, and Christian, the gay friend. The former is everything one would hope for from a a 25-year-old high-school student in a perpetual stupor, who “feels a little peculiar,” and can play mini congas while singing 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up.” Colonna’s fantastically droll delivery is Sean Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” meets Keanu Reeves in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” As the flamboyant and ultra-charismatic Christian, Colonna not only hits the high notes in Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” but also performs an outstanding duet of “Xanadu” (by ELO and Olivia Newton-John) with Barlow, wherein his uninterested Christian eludes her virginal, sex-fixated Cher.
Needless to say, everyone from Kate Pazakis, to the cast, crew, and the house band, have again made it look so seamless with “The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Clueless,” putting together an effortless show that is not only admirably precise in its absurdity, but builds upon the original film with a fresh perspective. Whether it’s 1995 or 2018, and regardless of our age, there will always be a little bit of teenage angst to be found in each of us, and this production reminds us to let go and treat our lingering ills with laughter.
The other cast includes Ashley Argota as Cher, Garrett Clayton as Travis/Christian, Lucas Coleman as Elton/Dad, Desi Dennis-Dylan as Murray, Jason Heymann as Josh, Domonique Paton as Dionne, Natalie Lander as Tai, and Morgan Smith as Amber/Miss Geist.
For more information about “The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Clueless,” please visit rockwell-la.com