After that it can take off in different directions, sometimes depending
on the presence of impressionist Nick Mulpagano. Two years ago
Tamaralee Shutt and the late Kevin Surrette dropped Mulpagano and
introduced a plot in which “Good Night, Irene” eventually leads to the
ascent of rock’n’roll. After a year’s hiatus, Mulpagano is back
performing more than half the numbers of the two-track cabaret that
rouses sold-out houses. It’s playing at—where else?—the New Times
Theater at the New York State Fairgrounds.
Some of the change this year originates
with the names at the top of the program. The show is now promoted as
“A Michael Wallace & Art Zimmer Production.” Wallace, owner of
Upstate Capital, Inc., and his wife Holly, a prominent attorney, are
always on stage, providing a framework narrative of time passing.
Seated at the side of the action, they are both holding copies of last
week’s edition of The New Times, from which they contribute
patter about long-ago news, like the move of the Syracuse Nats
basketball team to Philadelphia and the introduction of the pocket
calculator, at a cost of $4,500. The ongoing gag is that the Wallaces
are impersonating Art Zimmer and wife Shirley Zimmer. There are no
Mulpagano-like riffs on pronunciation or speech rhythms, but Michael
Wallace is wearing a cravat, a bronze identifying lapel pin, and
brightly colored blazers, to be changed at intermission.
This year’s revival runs under a new title: Cruizin’ with Nick and Friends.
Those friends are the elder Wallaces, teen performer Jeremy Wallace,
returning veteran Elizabeth Fern, welcome newcomer Shaun Forster and
two hard-working musicians, drummer Bill York and keyboardist Mike
Masucci. Two dozen of the show’s 40 numbers, running two hours and 20
minutes with intermission, spring out of Mulpagano’s eight impressions.
Many of these, like those for Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Dean Martin
and Frank Sinatra, have appeared in previous productions and are
time-tested with audiences. As Mulpagano has brought along his own
recorded music, he gives the live musicians and the three other
performers some break time.
Wildly popular as these may be with
audiences, Mulpagano might think again about how he orders their
sequence. His Elvis Presley comes at the end of the show, presumably
the climax, and is introduced with chords from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” But
America already has enough Elvis impersonators to fill a dozen football
fields, and the secrets of gyrating in a white jumpsuit are already out
there. More delightful are lesser-done singers like Neil Diamond and
Engelbert Humperdinck, although with the latter Mulpagano gets more
mileage with the Las Vegas see-through shirt and sprayed-on sweat than
he does with the voice. The routine that tops the laff-o-meter is his
Sonny Bono, where he generously shares the spotlight with Elizabeth
Fern’s uproarious and spot-on Cher.
Tunes for the other three singers
provide more of the energy behind the nostalgia trip, with mostly 1950s
selections in the first act and 1960s tracks in the second. The 1950s
numbers are tried-and-true stalwarts popular in earlier versions of Cruizin’,
like “Mr. Sandman,” “Chances Are” and “Yellow Rose of Texas.” All three
soloists define their own areas of pop history, with Fern the affecting
lyricist with “Nickelodeon” and “Tammy,” Jeremy Wallace the emergent
rocker of “Great Balls of Fire” and Forster the powerhouse roof-raiser
of “Earth Angel” and “Rags to Riches.” It was “Rags” that made a
26-year-old Tony Bennett a permanent fixture in American life in 1953.
The 1960s were a very different decade, as Fern’s switch
to a flower child crocheted vest reminds us. In the second act we hear
more numbers not in previous shows, most of which appear to be
favorites of the singers rather than the producers. Fern opens with the little-heard “Beat of a Different Drum,” Linda
Ronstadt’s 1967 hit. Her shattering “Believe Me” is her top moment in
the show. And Shaun’s “I’ll Be There” is making its first appearance in
the series. Elizabeth and Shaun join in a duet that is also a Cruizin’ debut, “My Girl/My Guy.”
This does not mean that favorites have
been neglected. All three singers join in the numbers you could not
leave the 1960s without: the Mamas and the Papas‘ “California Dreamin’”
and the Beatles’ “Help” and “All You Need is Love.” Other Beatles songs
are ceded to Shaun, which allows him his top moments in the show, “Let
It Be” and “Yesterday.”
No matter which shape Cruizin’ takes,
it forges on as an audience favorite. It differs greatly from another
longtime hit show it superficially resembles. Whereas Forever Plaid spoofs the music of four and five decades ago, allowing headbangers to scorn as oldsters swoon, Cruizin’ is
all about love. At least a half-dozen fans sitting around this reviewer
could call off the lyrics as the songs played on. The packed house was
on its feet at the end, followed by dancing in the aisles.
Tickets are still available for this production that runs through Saturday, May 9.
See Times Table for information.
A gallery of Michael Davis photos from Cruizin’.
Nick at night: Nick Mulpagano performs his uncanny takes on
Sonny Bono (with Elizabeth Fern as Cher)
and Elvis Presley.
Cruizin’ cast members Fern, Jeremy Wallace and Shaun Forster croon more classics.