'Decades' proves cliches please

Published Jan. 31, 1998|Updated Sep. 12, 2005

Decades is a patriotic pageant, a roll call of every sentimental cliche in the book, a nostalgic blast from the past.

It's also hugely entertaining, in a facile sort of way, and extremely well done. A lot of people will love this slice of musical Americana, which was conceived, written and directed by Claude McNeal, who has landed what amounts to the franchise for cabaret shows in the Jaeb Theater of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Decades, which opened Thursday night, follows last year's The Fabulous Fifties and Holiday Cabaret, two other shows by McNeal, head of American Cabaret Theatre in Indianapolis.

The idea in Decades is to cover 150 years of American history decade by decade through song, from 19th century numbers such as When Johnny Comes Marching Home right up to Candle in the Wind, the Elton John tribute to Marilyn Monroe adapted last year for Princess Diana.

It's not as clumsy as it might have been, thanks in part to a powerhouse production that includes hundreds of images projected on three large screens that dwarf the stage. Mary Lou Szczesiul's slide design achieves some striking effects, as in a sequence of cartoon panels (Mickey Mouse, Oswald the Rabbit) during Somewhere Over the Rainbow or black and white photos of slackers from the '50s.

The cast of three men and three women has been drilled to a fine turn, and the show unfolds at a pell-mell pace that never lets up. Several of the performers manage to break out of the generic mold endemic to such a show to make a distinct, individual impression.

Tracey Rawdan does some sweet singing in numbers such as Mary's a Grand Old Name. Stephanie Roberts is sensational in the Donna Summer torch song, Last Dance. Jerry Pantieri is a relentless entertainer from the old school, milking the yuks out of vaudeville numbers such as Ragtime Cowboy Joe.

Musically, the first act is more consistent than the second, which has to try to deal with rock 'n' roll, music that rarely works in the theater. Robert Thomas' cruise ship floor show rendition of Great Balls of Fire is one egregious example. However, it must be said that the disco era comes off surprisingly well, with swirling lights, a 1978 Time cover touting "Travolta Fever" and a funny spoof of the Village People's YMCA.

Visually, the show gets more interesting as time marches on, with evocative 20th century images such as Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post covers, the great photo journalism of the '60s and poster art of pop culture icons like James Dean.

The backstage action during Decades must be fast and furious, with costume changes galore, everything from World War I doughboys to flower children, from cowboys to Sonny and Cher.