June 5 2013 12:00 AM

Riverwalk closes season with musical comedy adaptation

Photo by LukeAnthony Photography

In live TV of the 1950s, you had one chance to get it right; blow that entrance, line or dance step, and millions of viewers witnessed your screw-up. The same is true, of course, of live theater and Riverwalk Theatre´s “My Favorite Year,” a musical set in the salad days of television, too often demonstrates the pitfalls of minimal preparation.

Based on the widely admired 1982 film that featured Peter O´Toole, “My Favorite Year” has always been a problematic stage production. The show’s 1992 Broadway premiere bombed hard … and it’s improved little since then, despite 20 years of reworks and rewrites. The flimsy story teeters between flamboyant comedy and Lifetime channel sentimentality. Its best songs are barely serviceable instead of memorable. It doesn´t help that many in the cast lack the vocal skills necessary for belting Broadway numbers.

Set in 1954 around the fictionalized comedy variety show “The King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade” (a la, Sid Caesar), the musical tracks the growth and disillusionment of the show’s assistant, Benjy Stone (Adam Woolsey) as he manages the show’s guest star Alan Swann (Mike Stewart). Once an Errol Flynn-style romantic action figure — and Benjy’s childhood idol — Swann is now a has-been who lives in a bottle, using his remaining charm to womanize. During their turbulent week together, Swann gives Stone a multitude of headaches but also the confidence to finally connect with co-worker K.C. (Mycah Artis); Stone, in turn, helps Swann see that there´s more to life than champagne and shameful behavior.

For a show about the pressures of attaining polish and perfectionism on a deadline, the performances in this Riverwalk production (with few exceptions) seem especially disconnected from the material. Instead of sprightly paced, sparkling performances required of the mediocre script, scene after scene suffocate beneath glacially paced, broadly acted line-readings. 

The primary exception is Woolsey, whose physical elegance and comic timing are among the show´s saving graces. Woolsey gives each scene his all, delivering tender, introspective ballads with the same assurance he brings to his goofier moments. Another exception is the adorably corny commercial for “Maxford House Coffee,” performed by the delightful trio of Racheal Raymer, Rikki Perez and Shantel Hamilton. 

But director Dan Pappas asks little of his cast, and the majority unfortunately gives little in return. Stewart plays Swann as more of a mildly amusing visiting uncle than a movie legend descending from Mt. Olympus. The script keeps reminding us of Swann´s irresistible charisma and potent panache, but they´re nowhere to be found in this characterization. Joseph Baumann fares better as the self-adoring King Kaiser, although the script never allows him room to define why this growling blowhard became a superstar. Lisa Pappas as Alice Miller — Kaiser’s one-time second-banana — generally looks as if she can´t wait to get back to the dressing room.

Instead of capturing the infectious ecstasy of life in a 1950s network, “My Favorite Year” frequently feels as static as an analogue TV with a bad antenna. If only there was a “Please Stand By” screen like those that popped up when broadcasts went wrong.

“My Favorite Year”
Riverwalk Theatre
Through June 9
7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday
$20 general/$18 students, seniors, military
228 Museum Drive, Lansing
(517) 482-5700