'What's Goin' On: Songs of the '70s'

For Jim Giancarlo, director and choreographer, "What's Goin' On: Songs of the '70s" was truly a labor of love. As he tells it, the idea of doing a revue of the songs of the '70s had been bubbling in his brain for longer than a year — not a random collection of songs but a representative range of folk-rock, pop, soul, disco and jazz-fusion, with a narrative creating "an impressionistic portrait of this decade of change." The world premiere occurred at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre on Friday.

The show begins with

"The Age of Aquarius" from the hippie musical "Hair" (1968), followed by social protest songs and Women's Movement items, specifically "I'm Every Woman" and "We Are Family." Thus ends Act One.

The opening number in Act Two concerns "On the (FM) Radio" and leads into songs about Night Life, Singles Bar and Therapy.

What is arresting about the setting is the huge screen: 10-feet-by-10-feet, on which are projected iconic images — historical highlights, graphic moments or just a beautiful skyscape. They help to tell the decade's story.

The musicians are seated on stage below and in front of the screen. John Taylor, the musical director, who created the thrilling musical arrangements, does a number on the keyboard — well, actually, a slew of more than 30 songs. Joining him is Michael Vannice on reeds. They are a dazzling and dexterous duo. I doubt the Old Pink Church that was transformed into the Oregon Cabaret Theatre ever reverberated more than in this production, with its driving, danceable beat and strong voices. The decibels are loud and clear, particularly in Act Two.

The choreography whirls on, over and over evincing Giancarlo's sure touch, helped by Tony Cupsick, Suzanne Seiber, Emilee Yaakola and the cast. Special thanks are due to Karrie Smith, a member of the costume and wardrobe crew. The costumes by Kerri Lea Robbins are delightful and right on target, even to the exercise outfits at the show's end. Ben Brown and Bridget Carlson deserve credit as lighting and projection assistants.

So all this is fine. But what about the actors? The cast assembled by Giancarlo is equal to all the challenges, vocal and terpsichorean. They belt out the songs (don't expect any romantic ballads a la Barry Manilow) and dance their hearts out. They are engaging in the ensembles and deliver in their solo spots.

Back, after appearing in OCT's "Smokey Joe's Café," is the tall, vibrant Dante Maurice Sterling. His powerful "Me and Mrs. Jones" is a song to savor. Making their debuts at OCT are Amber Doss (one of the soul singers in the 2008-2009 national tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar") who offers us a vigorous "I Will Survive;" Chelsea Richter (just graduated from The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts theatre-fest, two-year actor training program) makes us laugh at her "Love Hurts" routine; and Emilee Yaakola (also a graduate from PCPA) has her moments in Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Oh, men!

Rounding out the quintet is Matthew Steven Lawrence (a PCPA graduate who has performed in numerous musicals, such as "Les Miserables," "The Music Man," "Fiddler On The Roof," "Grease" and "Oklahoma!" He has an excellent voice, capable of passion as demonstrated in "Baby Come Back" and in a surprising excerpt from "Stayin' Alive," the big 1977 hit of the Bee Gees.

So, what's goin' on? I strongly recommend that you visit the Oregon Cabaret Theatre to find out. The show plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, with brunch matinees at 1 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 1. Dinner or brunch is available with advance reservation. Call 488-2902.

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