Alliance Theater presents the sparkling world premiere of “Trading Places: The Musical” until June 26.
The show is loosely based on the 1983 film “Trading Places”, John Landis’ dated comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy
An excellent Broadway team – led by director Kenny Leon – created the current work. As you may know, Mr. Leon has become a major national force in theater and film, directing Broadway plays and films, winning Tony Awards and all sorts of accolades. Here he reconnects with his roots: he was artistic director of the Alliance, a position now held by the estimable Susan V. Booth.
The book is by Thomas Lennon; music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. All three have major credits too numerous to list.
This iteration of “Trading Places” is sassy, clever, and very funny, but its secret weapon is a big heart, which you’ll find out if you see it; and I hope you do. The songs are witty with a big brass sound that tells me New York, despite the show being set in Philadelphia. They are performed by a formidable cast of actor-singers, each of whom can put on a show on their own.
Wealthy Duke brothers Mortimer (Marc Kudisch) and Randolph (Lenny Wolpe) own a commodity brokerage firm, and they have opposing views on the matter of nature versus nurture. They decide to make a bet and conduct an experiment – swapping the lives of two people on opposite sides of the social hierarchy: their well-mannered and educated employee Louis Winthorpe III (Bryce Pinkham), engaged to their great-niece Penelope (McKenzie Kurtz) – and a poor black street hustler named Billie Rae Valentine (Aneesa Folds). The brothers love to play fast and loose with other people’s lives.
Louis is introduced as a thief and drug dealer with the help of a certain Mr. Beeks (Josh Lamon), a character slipping on the Dukes’ payroll. Louis is fired from Duke & Duke, his bank accounts are frozen, and he is denied entry to his Duke-owned home. So the rich and well-born Louis is suddenly homeless, while Billie Rae joins the company and easily prospers.
On the street, Louis tries to sell his expensive watch but can hardly get anything for it; he sings “What time is it in Gstaad? – a funny and oddly poignant song because poor Louis has no street smarts.
But he is rescued and cared for by Phil (Michael Longoria), a gay, Latina drag queen with a lot of compassion. He sings “Abre Tus Ojos” (open your eyes) to Louis, to himself and to the world. Mr. Longoria is funny, charming and moving; in a cast of brilliant talent, he stands out.
There have been social media criticisms of Phil’s character, and it frankly baffles me. Yes, Phil is a drag queen, but he’s totally insinuating. Director Leon says in the program that he “wanted to find as much diversity in telling the story…” and to artsatl.com he said “…We can learn how far or how far we We’ve evolved as people in terms of sexual fluidity, gender differences, racial differences, and how men treat women.
I’m not going to reveal more about the plot, except to remind you that this is a musical, and things will probably turn out well. One moment that sticks with me is near the end of the show when Louis tries to apologize to Billie Rae, but she stops him and says, regarding his behavior, “You didn’t see me.” With this comment, she reminds us all that we really need to see each other; it is a plea for human empathy.
So much talent in this show! You will long remember Mrs. Folds’ (Billie Rae) ‘eleven o’clock number’ called ‘Not Anymore’. His voice is soaring, powerful and also subtle. It is a major talent.
The same goes for everyone I’ve mentioned, especially Mr. Pinkham (Louis), whose emotional range is moving and surprising. I failed to mention the excellent Don Stephenson as Coleman, the butler whose name no one remembers very well. Really, there are no small parts. Mr. Leon was careful to ask each actor to do their best; he got it.
Since this is the Alliance, we can expect flawless scenography (Beowulf Boritt), as well as lighting design (Adam Honoré), costumes by Emilio Sosa, choreography by Fatima Robinson . I wish I could mention more artists and support team members, but they’re all in the program, when you see the show.
Finally, I will mention that the opening night audience was pretty delirious with joy and thunderous applause and whistles. It’s a show that’s probably destined for Broadway; in fact, you can bet on it.
For tickets and more information, visit alliancetheatre.org.