'Island' Reprise

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

All art forms keep one eye on the past and one eye on the present. Novelists, musicians or painters are all inspired by artists who've come before — whether it's reading Flaubert, listening to Jimi Hendrix or seeing a Van Gogh exhibit.

Theatre is different because its artists are expected not just to have read Shakespeare or attend a Tom Stoppard play; they're often asked to direct one or act in one.

island10.jpg Old theatre is not just curated and dusted off; it's literally brought back to life. In many cities there are companies or festivals that specialize in this type of alchemy, where the theater only stages works of a certain era or style of long ago. Here in Los Angeles, there really is only one such troupe that does this on a large scale, the newly renamed Reprise Theatre Company.

Reprise has been around for eleven years, but it's always had a more ungainly official title: Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert. The exclamation point was to make sure no one missed what Reprise! specialized in: old-fashioned musical theater.

Unfortunately, while the exclamation point was truth in advertising, the "Broadway's Best" was not. Often what Reprise consisted of was Broadway shows that were forgotten (often for good reason) performed in semi-staged versions by TV personalities that were also largely forgotten.

Some Reprise shows have been successes. I remember enjoying their staging of Mack & Mabel many years ago; but mostly, the productions seemed to be catering to aging Westside audiences who were alive when many of these old musicals were first premiered.

island5.jpg This year marks the re-branding of Reprise under its new artistic director: Jason Alexander. Alexander is a Tony award-winning actor — though he's most famous for playing George Constanza on Seinfeld for nine years. Alexander's passion for musicals was clear in his ambitious Reprise! production of Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George two seasons ago. That staging had problems, but it showed that Alexander had a vision that pushed beyond mere concert versions of really old shows.

The first show of Reprise's new season, which opened last week, is not a musty old Broadway mothball; it's a lively piece that made its mark off-Broadway, titled Once on This Island. Written by the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (who would go on to write the blockbuster musical Ragtime), Once on This Island is a fast, friendly, musical fusion of calypso, reggae, and of course, Sondheim.

The plot is a pastiche of old bedtime stories involving lost children, voodoo, and magic trees. It seems to be begging to be made into an animated film musical; but it entertains, mostly because it doesn't give you time to notice its flimsy dramatic underpinnings.

island4.jpg What makes this Reprise production come alive is the eleven actors who perform the musical numbers with energy, precision and spirit. Also, the choreography (by Bradley Rapier) is better than most big touring shows that make their way to LA. It's rarely inspired, but its hip-hop influenced steps fit with the piece and don't feel stale or conventional. Once on This Island is not Broadway's Best or even an overlooked gem; it's just a solid musical that is usually relegated these days to schools and community theaters. This very professional, compact, vibrant and well-curated production gives hope that the Reprise Theatre Company will be worth keeping an eye on in seasons ahead.

Once on this Island runs through Sunday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: John Ganun