SAN PEDRO, CALIF.: “I’ve been waiting for a long time for a first-rate revue of my work,” confessed lauded musical-theatre composer Stephen Schwartz recently. The occasion was the unveiling of a new show designed to fit the bill: “Magic to Do” is a 55-minute, Broadway-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil-on-the-high-seas anthology that just launched aboard four Princess Cruise ships; Schwartz and a cast of performers recently unveiled the show on the Crown Princess, docked in the Port of Los Angeles, for gathered press and guests.
“This clever combination of my songs with virtually all the great magic illusions in history could finally be it,” Schwartz said. The show, whose title comes from the opening number of Pippin, is set to run for a year.
It’s an ambitious project, with some illustrious names attached: Emmy-winning stage designer Jeremy Railton, Tony-winning lighting designer Ken Billington, Cirque costumer Dominque Lemieux, and master magic designer Jim Steinmeyer. Gabriel Barre directs, with choreography by Jennifer Paulson-Lee and orchestrations by David Siegel. The show is the first proposed for a four-show series that will be conceived around Schwartz’s vast catalog of theatre and film songs.
Schwartz admitted to being hesitant about the idea when first approached by Princess Cruises.
“Revues are notoriously difficult to make work,” he said. “Songs written for musical theatre and movies are created for specific characters in specific stories. Putting them into a new context can diminish their impact.”
Magic to Do started germinating as a proposed full-length revue when Schwartz approached Barre with the idea of combining stage magic with his music. Schwartz then put Barre in touch with music supervisor/arranger Mark Hartman, and they began concocting the project. But it languished until producer Don Frantz, looking for ideas to pitch to Princess Cruises, revived interest. “Everybody here loved it,” said Barre, and then the team set out to “take our initial idea and really tailor it for this audience and this experience and this facility.”
At the premiere, the title number had scarcely begun, in which a magician’s box produces the show’s interlocutor Magic Maker (actor/magician Michael Misko), when a power outage halted the proceedings.
But in the best show-must-go-on tradition, guests Jo Anne Worley and cast members from “The Love Boat” soldiered on and held court onstage. Worley sang an a capella version of “Memory” with original parody lyrics about age impairment, while Gavin MacLeod, Ted Lange, Bernie Koppell, and Jill Whelan reminisced about Princess Cruises, early Broadway days, and coping with the lack of bathroom facilities at the Rose Parade.
At once incredibly valiant and slightly surreal, this impromptu prologue proved exactly the ice-breaker to neutralize crowd expectations pro or con. When the show proper began again, it took off like a shot, with impressive technical and artistic elements: shadow puppets morphing into human beings, glitter descending from on high only to vanish into the floor.
A vague narrative weaves through the show, following two couples: the married Adam (Kurt Robbins) and Eve (Stephanie Hodgdon), and burgeoning romantics Pip (Danny McHugh) and Cat (Courtney Stokes). But the real focus is on Schwartz’s songs—and as comprehensive a sampler of magic tricks in one show as this writer has ever seen.
Aerialists, disappearing and sawing-in-half tricks, sleight of hand, levitation, escapology, and more suffuse the proceedings. Daniel Wurtzel’s air effects are judiciously but enchantingly used. Ditto Danny Fiandaca’s sound design, an ambient aural landscape, and George Johnson’s media and sound effects, which take depth of field and artistic allusions from Botticelli to Magritte to Pollock to deftly amazing places, are invaluable.
The cast at the Crown Princess showing was up to the challenge, displaying versatility and unswerving dexterity. Highlights included McHugh dulcetly crooning “Corner of the Sky” as a tightrope act; Stokes pertly sawing Hodgdon in two during “Popular”; a puppet kickline for “No Time at All”; and, in a breathtaking climax, “Colors of the Wind” done with an invisibly maneuvered swirling-chiffons pas de deux that rightly stopped the show.
Two numbers from Schwartz’s abandoned Houdini musical—carried forth with clarion-voiced aplomb by Robbins—are so effective in their own right that one hopes the composer-lyricist might figure out how to resume that project.
It’s not a deep-dish entertainment—this is designed for people having a holiday on the ocean, after all—but as such things go, it’s an adroit, imaginative, and enjoyable one. As Schwartz noted: “Everyone is technically so good at his or her job that it makes that aspect of the show easy, and we can just concentrate on the show itself. We’re trying to do a show that people will first of all be astounded by—tricks and illusions that they have no idea how they’re done.”
David C. Nichols is a performance artist-turned-arts journalist whose writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Backstage, and L.A. Weekly, among others.