A Sneak Peek at B'way's Street Corner Symphony

A Sneak Peek at B'way's Street Corner Symphony October 16. Outside, the weather was cool and drizzly, but inside the rehearsal room at the Wien Center at 890 Broadway in New York, things were quickly heating up.

October 16. Outside, the weather was cool and drizzly, but inside the rehearsal room at the Wien Center at 890 Broadway in New York, things were quickly heating up.

In the vintage eight-story Chelsea building known in the industry as "890 Studios" (from the days when it was owned by director/choreographer Michael Bennett - whose presence will be forever felt in the myriad rehearsal rooms), an invited audience of 25 members of the Fourth Estate -- journalists, photographers, TV news crews -- was about to get a sneak peek at a new Broadway musical, Street Corner Symphony. The celebration of pop songs of the 1960s and '70s begins previews Oct. 28 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

In a mirrored room purported to be the size of the actual stage at the Brooks Atkinson, a sort of organized chaos was taking place ten minutes before the 11 AM."curtain" as the audience members -- equipped with press kits, muffins, and coffee -- took their seats on folding chairs arranged in two rows against the back wall.

All eight cast members were in the room, decked out in casual rehearsal clothes (T-shirts, sneaks, and the like). Four of the actors were rehearsing Elvis-like gyrations in the middle of the floor, three were gathered around the piano singing "Heat Wave," and another was sitting alone in the far left corner, which was cluttered with backpacks and Evian bottles.

The show's production stage manager and other staffers were seated at a long table to the far right of the room; to the left a perky TV producer (who had been surly in the elevator ride up only a few minutes before) was interviewing Marion J. Caffey, who conceived, choreographed, and staged the show (and who today looked especially cool in black shirt and pants and silver suspenders). There was a keen air of anticipation in the room, even among the most cynical (after all, doesn't everyone secretly hope against hope that they will be witness to the next Chorus Line in the making? Especially when they're sitting in the Michael Bennett studios...).The show's co-producer Kenneth Waissman (who also co-produced the original Grease) greeted the audience, introduced his co-producer Bryan Bantry, and then turned the floor over to director Caffey, who said that he hoped the excerpts about to be presented would "indicate the flow" of the show.

Caffey then introduced the eight actors: Carol Dennis, Victor Cook, Jose Llana, Stacy Francis, Catherine Morin, C.E. Smith, Debra Walton, and Eugene Fleming. They took their places "on stage."

What unfolded during the next half hour was some exciting in-your-face singing and dancing. Much of it was literally in your face; at times the performers were no more than a foot away from the audience.

The very loose story line of Street Corner Symphony takes a group of friends through the Swinging Sixties, the turbulent Vietnam Era, and the Soul Music Seventies.

Carol Dennis set the stage for what was to come by talking about the "guys hangin' on the corner, practicing the steps of their favorite singing groups."

The cast then enacted such a scene: Jessie Lee (Jose Llana) is taunted by his friends (Victor Cook, C.E. Smith, and Eugene Fleming) for listening to "old music." "There's a new beat on the street," says one of the guys, as the cast gears up for a medley of "Dancing in the Streets" and "Dance to the Music." After that, the songs just keep coming, from "Proud Mary" to "Get Ready."

There were moments of unexpected power -- moments that might seem hokey to read but nevertheless work splendidly in the theatre -- like the end of Act I, where the cast members re-created the Kent State massacre as Dennis stepped forward and sang "American Pie."

When the performance was over, the actors were covered with perspiration but elated. Everything had gone without a hitch, and the audience members were coming over to congratulate them. (A good sign at times like this.)

"It's nice as an actor to get to keep working and to do different parts," said Jose Llana, a humble and affable Jimmy Stewart type who got rave reviews as Gabey in the summer 1997 N.Y. Shakespeare in the Park production of On The Town.

Red haired Catherine Morin, who has been with Street Corner Symphony since its first incarnation earlier this year at the Burt Reynolds Theatre Institute in West Palm Beach, FL, said she is elated to be making her Broadway debut in a show with such broad appeal. The sold-out Florida run led directly to the Broadway production. Audience members ranged from 5 to 98, she said.

The best thing about the show? "There was a family feel to it right from the start," said Morin. "On Broadway it's the same family, but with more pizzazz."

Previews begin Oct. 28; opening night is scheduled for Nov. 18. Tickets are on sale by phone at Ticketmaster, (212) 307-4100,or at the box office of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th St.

The production team includes Neil Peter Jampolis (sets), Jonathan Bixby (costumes), Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lighting) and Jonathan Deans (sound).