Rarely Done Productions honcho Dan Tursi, strange to say, was a tad
defensive in his curtain speech to the second sold-out house for Star Wars: The Musical.
at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St. “This is not like Rodgers and
Hammerstein,” he shrugged, “where you start out with a book and music.
This time we had the music, and David and Todd had to find the book to
fit it.” Timothy Edward Smith and Hunter Nolen’s original compositions,
written some time ago and far away, borrow themes from John Williams’
bombastic film score or mimic its soaring, lyric romanticism. What the
aforementioned David Witanowski and Todd Panek have done is fit them
into George Lucas’ scenario of the 1977 movie that nearly every single
American citizen has seen at least once. The names remain the same,
under permission of copyright; only the tone has been changed to create
The Jazz Central venue, home turf for Rarely Done, explains why
Tursi was giving the curtain speech. But he also made clear that Star Wars is
a collaboration between two companies, his own and Witanowski’s
eponymously named Wit’s End Players. Todd Panek, goateed brother of
Joey Panek and husband of actress Aubry Ludington Panek (she’s a
nominee at this year’s Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards), has been more associated with Tursi’s Rarely Done.
Although both guys are known quantities, it is impossible to know
who put in what in the show. Witanowski directs and takes several small
roles, most impressively as a Storm Trooper, but Panek does not appear
on stage. What we learn as Star Wars roars on is that there are
two conflicting sensibilities at play here, whether they belong to the
two companies or the two creators. One worships the Star Wars saga
and relishes every sliver of Lucas trivia. The other one thinks the
entire enterprise is a hoot and that every Jedi knight deserves his own
whoopee cushion. Such an approach guarantees you never get too much of
the same thing.
Take the no small matter of production values. As even two community
theater companies in tandem have close to zero percent of the financial
resources of 20th Century Fox, there’s an understandable urge to just
chuck it all, and sure enough, there is no set. Many of the props are
junkyard resources, like the used football padding and the automobile
bike rack. Princess Leia waves a 1992-vintage 3½-inch floppy disk. But
some of the costumes are first-rate, like Darth Vader’s helmet, cape
and boots and Chewbacca’s fur suit. Director Witanowski might have just
been following the script, but he is prudent to show us more quality
just when we think Star Wars might be only a fraternity skit that ran on.
Action begins with foot-stomping hilarity when hand-carried signs
with a mock intro spoof the ascending credits from the movie, ending
with a visual gag. But Witanowski and Panek’s aims are clearly a bit
more ambitious. A skit is at most 10 minutes. Not only are they
balancing this love vs. laughter bifurcation for the property itself,
but they’ve got to keep the action going for two hours.
The way to keep holding the audience is to alternate two modes. The
first is a precise, admiring spoof of the original property, something
that all devout Star Wars worshipers can love. The second is an
uproarious travesty, a no-holds-barred romp where you all but forget
what happened in the movie.
In the first mode you have Uncle Owen (Lanny Freshman) and Aunt Beru
(Marcia Mele), non-comic characters who don’t lend themselves to
parody. Just including such characters shows that Witanowski and Panek
are being faithful to the original script. Even the space cowboy Han
Solo (Jordan Glaski) can generate laughter with mild exaggeration.
Supreme in this mode are the golden C-3P0 (Peter Irwin) and
diminutive R2-D2 (Binaifer Dabu), who both compete for the Frank
Gorshin-Rich Little Award, genuinely bringing the screen characters
alive on stage. Alive, but subverted. Irwin’s C-3P0 has the beginnings
of rebellion under the character’s sissy deference. Dabu’s
close-to-ground robot, on tiny sneakers rather than wheels, comes up
with all the squeaks and whistles, but she punctuates them with rolled
eyes and a thrust tongue.
On the other side we have a lanky, over-the-top Luke Skywalker
(Dylan Montrond), a leading man who’s more fruitcake than beefcake.
Opposite him is the full-throated, full-bosomed Princess Leia (Jodie
Baum), who’s a bit more worldly wise than we remember. Baum, who justly
won a SALT Award for her Musical of Musicals: The Musical on
this same stage, can easily swing from the imperiousness required of a
princess to cut-loose mayhem. In what might have been an unscripted
ad-lib, she breaks out of character, responds to calls for her own
name, and cracks jokes on who might be pursuing “a fat chick in a white
Reigning supreme on the wild side, stealing scene after scene, is
that supposed voice of Jedi wisdom, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Josh Mele). Forget
that Sir Alec Guinness, a paragon of British restraint, ever had
anything to do with this role. For all his bellowing and pregnant
pauses, what comes out of his mouth is mostly nonsense. Mele’s dramatic
hesitations feel like he’s teasing the audience and director Witanowski
that he might have forgotten his lines, only to roar back with verbal
firecrackers, giving hot feet to any doubters. As one of the best
tenors in community theater, Mele also distinguishes his portions of
the Smith-Nolen score, as in his first act duet with Luke.
Two of the best-known local performers also appear in Star Wars: The Musical,
one heard but not seen, the other seen but not heard. Bill Molesky, our
closest approximation of James Earl Jones, provides the projected voice
for actor Derek Potocki’s Darth Vader. And clean-shaven Gennaro Parlato
floats across the stage as a Death Star. His one allowed expression is
a grimace in reaction to a crack about his size; one chance earns one
Smith and Nolen should be thrilled that their derivative score gets
a hearing, and the numbers given to Josh Mele and Jodie Baum sound
best. “The Walls are Closing In,” sung by a chorus in the garbage
compactor scene has merit. Otherwise, don’t wait for the CD.
Star Wars: The Musical is playing to packed houses and will
live on in local community theater lore for years to come.
This production runs through Sunday, March 7. See Times Table for information.