Review: Theatre-on-the-Hill’s Back to the 80s

Show: BACK TO THE 80s
Music and Lyrics: Neil Gooding
Original Musical Adaption: Scott Copeman
Location: Theatre-on-the-Hill
Director: Michael Fudala
Vocal Director: Sharon Hand

Theatre-on-the-Hill‘s latest summer foray is the family friendly musical Back to the 80s. At first glance one would say that Back to the 80s is Grease set to the 80s and using popular 80s music. With a storyline revolving around various cliques that would be familiar to any audience member:

Set in the USA, Back To The 80’s tells the story of the senior class of William Ocean High School that graduated in the 1980’s, as remembered and seen through the eyes of middle-aged Corey Palmer (Scott Bovaird).

The then 17-year-old Corey (Caleb Hand) is madly in love with his next-door neighbour, Tiffany Houston (Kristina Parro), one of the coolest girls in the school. However, she barely notices this, as she is too busy mooning over Michael Feldman (Victor Rachal), the hottest guy around. Michael and his friends (Jon Worlton, Jonathan O’Brien, Kayaun Pierce) are athletic and good-looking – the kind of guys that Corey and his two best friends (Jon Slowik and Troy Schaeflein) dream of being. However, while they may not be the coolest guys in school, they are still one up on Feargal McFerrin III (Kevin Nepomuceno), whose best friend is his computer, and who believes the crazy notion that one day CD’s will replace cassette tapes.

Several new students arrive at the school – Mel and Kim Easton (the all-singing, all-dancing twin cheerleaders played by Rachel Slowik and Teri Karl respectively) and Eileen Reagan (Deana Vazquez), who tries desperately to fit in.

Meanwhile the teachers are having issues of their own: Mr Cocker (Scott Boland), after being in a relationship for a year with the apparently conservative English teacher, Miss Sheena Brannigan (Guinevere McGahan), confiscates an old edition of Penthouse from a student, only to discover a wedge that could drive them apart.

Throw in a Star Wars dream sequence complete with Yoda (Joseph Bovaird), high-energy dance routines, the obligatory 80’s party scene, copious amounts of blue eye-shadow, twenty cans of hairspray, as well as some of the most popular songs ever written, and the result is a musical that will not only delight and amuse an audience of any age, but will also inspire any young cast.

Scott Bovaird, the narrator going through his memories of his senior year probably had the one of, if not the most, difficult part in the whole show. Being a narrator is one thing, the fact that what he says or does pretty much cues everyone else in the cast, well that’s a different thing entirely. Scott has been strong and consistent through every viewing of the production. Though he didn’t have much to do as an actor, he does some measure of singing that was not just respectable, but well-done. Singing songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” made famous by Wham!, “Shot Through the Heart” aka “You Give Love A Bad Name” by Bon Jovi, and “Love Stinks” from the J Geils Band.

Since this is a family show, not only are all three of Scott’s sons part of the cast, but I found it mildly ironic that their roles revolve around their father’s younger version. The twins: Spencer and Campbell play Corey Palmer’s younger twin brothers who happen to be massive Star Wars geeks. Their younger brother, Joseph, steals the moment by playing Yoda during the Star Wars inspired dream sequence.

Caleb Hand plays the younger version of Corey Palmer in his senior year of high school. Having had the pleasure of seeing Caleb grow up over the years he really grew into his own as an actor, performer and vocalist in this production. I really loved watching him go through the natural emotions of a high school student (which he is) and is truly a joy to watch, especially during his duet / battle against the “most popular guy in school”…

TOTH newcomer Victor Rachal… though not a stranger to the stage, he is a stranger to musical theatre. He brings the “cool” in Michael Feldman with such ease switching between the guy that you could see yourself wanting to follow to a total douche. Though he does sing a few times in the production (most noticeably in “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins), my favorite performance from him time and time again is his duet with Caleb in “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Scottish band of identical twins The Proclaimers.

A side note before I go on: “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers was originally released in the United Kingdom in 1988 but did not gain prominence in the United States until 1993. A stretch? You bet. But hey… I knew of songs from over yonder in Ireland years before they even touched ground in the states… so not exactly impossible.

Anyway, in regards to Victor: Here is hoping that he will return to the TOTH stage for productions to come.

Kristina Parro who portrays Tiffany, the center of both Corey and Michael’s “affections”, did a respectable job in the role. She was last seen in Theatre-on-the-Hill’s production of The Music Man as Marian where she did a very good job in encompassing the role… for some reason her portrayal here fell kind of flat… it did not seem realistic almost the point that it felt like she was trying too hard… whileas with Marian last year she was much more natural and effortless for the most part.

The same can be said about Alyssa Emelio who portrays one of Tiffany’s friends: Cyndi Gibson. Having been in previous TOTH productions where she was more realistic in the roles that she portrayed, in this case there are moments that she shined and others where she seemed to be “acting by numbers” or rather “going through the motions”. She sings her solos well, but without the performance being there, there wasn’t much more to draw from.

One female that really shone though was Deana Vazquez who portrays Eileen the new girl in school. She is just this big ball of energy on the stage, a little spitfire and who can’t help but want to watch here in her moments on the stage.

However the men really stole the show in this production and none other did it as well as Kevin Nepomuceno who portrayed the ultimate nerdy character: Feagal McFerrin III. He was just wonderful no matter what he did, be it acting, singing, dancing, or anything in between Kevin is truly one of those actors knows how to be engaging and puts in more than 100% into what he does and you can see how effortless it all comes around. It is too bad that he is not available closing weekend because he is one of those reasons as to why you have to see this production.

You know what is another major reason to see this production? The scene changes… they were run like a well-oiled machine this time around. With Stage Manager Whitney Smith at the helm the stage crew was a mix of TOTH regulars like Bobby Alexander, Christine Martin and Adam Krause (who is also known for his exceptional talent on the stage) and newcomers. This was a stage crew that knew exactly what was going on and did their darnedest to do it well…

But what really made the scene changes work isn’t the scene change themselves but what happens in the background when the scene changes occurs. When you go to Theatre-on-the-Hill to see this production, there are two towers on the stage that are the “homes” for DJ Sharona (Sharon Hand) and Special Guest Star Harry Iconic Jr (Jeff Pattawi-Gamlin). During not only all the scene changes but also at particular moments throughout the production they provide the vocals for additional 80s music much like you’d hear when you’re listening on the radio. Jeff really shone through in this production singing snippets of who knows how many songs (I lost count), emulating a lot of the original artists and stealing the show (in my humble opinion and that of a lot of TOTH regulars). In fact we would go so far as to say that everyone else on the stage should just go away so we could listen to Jeff singing.

Anyway I digress… as to be expected (in my experience) this jukebox musical lends itself open to most theatre groups adding more into the score. Some may switch songs around, but for the most part this script and score stayed relatively intact (more so than other production floating on the web). If anything, coming to see this production is bound to get you to start bouncing in your seat and singing along with the cast. I know I have, several times, with friends… and trust me there are moments worth coming for:
Star Wars Dream Sequence: for anyone that is a fan of Star Wars will find this analogy to be a bit odd. But then again looking at the fact that this is the 80s are we really surprised?
The 80s Songs: all the songs in this production are legitimately from the 80s and there is something for everyone to want to sing along with. Perhaps while sitting on the hill with a glass of Chardonnay.
DJ Sharona and Harry Iconic Jr: See above, enough said.
Stellar Cast: Despite a few hiccups here and there, I was not bored by any stretch of the imagination and I have seen this production several times during the run thus far with the intention of seeing it again at least once more.
Stellar Stage Crew: Again… see above.

If you haven’t seen this production, then what are you waiting for? And if you have… you better damn well go again, preferably with a posse… afterall you only got one more weekend for this little gem of a show.