STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Musical From God's Country

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: A Musical From God's Country So how did you spend the Fourth of July? I decided to get out of this dear old dirty town and go to East Lampeter Township, Pennsylvania.

So how did you spend the Fourth of July? I decided to get out of this dear old dirty town and go to East Lampeter Township, Pennsylvania.

To see a musical, of course. You didn't think I could go for a weekend without one, did you?

So I headed west on Route 78, until I reached the Pennsylvania Turnpike, then Route 222, then Route 30, which is also known as the Lincoln Highway, cited in that Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg song from Hooray for What? entitled "God's Country.l

Well, it's not quite God's country now. It's a road filled with strip malls, discount outlets, and fast fooderies. In the midst of it all, on 7 1/2 acres, stands the 55,000 square foot, 1,607-seat, $10 million American Music Theatre.

Who'd-a thunk it? But, as it turns out, there's plenty of Pennsylvania theaters in the Lancaster area. No, the fondly remembered Valley Forge Music Theatre isn't around anymore, having bit the dust last year. But there's the Sight and Sound Entertainment Centre in nearby Strasburg, the Dutch Apple in Centerville, and the Rainbow Dinner Theatre in a town called -- I swear it -- Paradise. Gregg Halteman, American Music Theater's director of marketing, in fact, was previously associated with the Sight and Sound, where he helped produced a Christian show called Noah! The piece had been running at the 1,400-seat playhouse for years, until, ironically enough, the show with a plot about a great flood was done in by a great fire.

Halteman moved over to American Music. "We're taking the essence of the ever-popular Branson, Missouri shows, and blending it with the sophistication and genius of Broadway," he says. "We knew early on that we wanted to get outside of the traditional 'stand and sing' formula.l

So, on April 12, the place opened with a million dollar musical revue called From Branson to Broadway, under the artistic direction of Pat Kauter, the chairperson of Hempfield High School's dance and theater department.

I entered the much-columned and chandeliered lobby, then modestly took my place in one of the 1,154 extraordinarily comfortable orchestra seats. On the back of each is a cup holder so that I could easily rest my Big Gulp soda from the amply stocked concession stand.

The show? It opens with some scenes from Amish life, even including a barn-raising, bringing back memories of Plain and Fancy. Then came about a half-hour of country songs (I'm told you're not supposed to say "country and western" anymore. Just "country." Now you know.)

I suspect these country songs were famous, but because none came from Pump Boys, Big River, or either Whorehouse, I can't say for sure. But I take my inference from the fact that once we went from Branson to Broadway, I heard famous enough selections, all sung by a 26-member cast wearing Rent and Smokey Joe mikes, positioned in front of a Londonesque backdrop.

They did "Shall We Dance" -- not only the Gershwin song, but the Rodgers' one, too. The Gershwin had the exact same arrangement we heard in Crazy for You. Then "Isn't It Romantic?" and "They Can't Take That away from Me." With the exact same arrangement we heard in Crazy for You.

The backdrop then changed to one that looked like Iowa City. We then heard "Too Darn Hot" and "Heat Wave." It was back to the Londonesque backdrop for "But Not for Me." With the exact same arrangement we heard in Crazy for You.

And so it went to white tuxes and turquoise cummerbunds. "Embraceable You." "You're the Top." Then, to some Frisbee tossing and yo yo hurling, "I've Got Rhythm." With the exact same arrangement we heard in Crazy for You, including the orchestral riffs of "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise." Then we had an intermission.

According to the program, which offers a plot synopsis, "Act II begins on an emotional level." Well, it did for me. Because as people were up there in waitress uniforms, hard-hat construction outfits, and a forklift came on, I thought, wow, this looks just like Working. And then, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the cast began "I Hear America Singing"! Guess that back in 1978, artistic director Kauter visited New York, couldn't get tickets for Ain't Misbehavin', Dancin' or On the Twentieth Century, and wound up at Working. I'm glad she did. It was a lovely obscure oasis among the overly familiar.

Like two "New York, New Yorks -- both the Kander/Ebb and On the Town versions. Then came two San Francisco songs -- the up tempo one, and the "I Left My Heart in" one. Next were "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," and "Chicago." No, nothing from the current smash revival, but the "toddlin' town" song.

They drove out a convertible and did "America," then "Amazing Grace." Performers then came out in Zulu, Latino, and Scottish garb. "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" came next, then some Kauter choreography derivative of Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Then we were released.

The upshot? It's definitely a middle-class experience for bused-in seniors, which is what the powers-that-be intended all along. There's a 10:30 a.m. performance for them each Wednesday, which literally makes it a matinee. Then there's a more conventional matinee each day at 3:30, then an evening show at 7 p.m., too. Tickets are $25, though kids up to 17 get in for $17.

Well, one thing is in place: The place. The facility is pretty reminiscent of the clean and comfortable Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, which, at last count, rang in with 40,000-plus subscribers. And just as busloads of old-timers have had good times watching book musicals there, there has to be a market for those who'd bus to the Lancaster area for the five Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, Funny Girl, Fiddler, and Dolly, and, of course, Plain and Fancy.

The trick, of course, is for the American Music Theatre to abandon this revue format. Let's hope that'll happen before Nov. 1, when Holiday Treasures is scheduled to open.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com