Pearly Gates, the Musical

poster-300x251The March 18 world premiere of Pearly Gates, the Musical at the famous El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood was a surprise. There was no advance notice, beyond a casting call last December. There was no advertising, nothing on Goldstar. A friend of mine knew a guy who knew someone in the cast – so I went.

The place was packed, completely sold out. We took our seats to jazz standards, played by the show’s music director/pianist/composer, Joshua Rich, and his bassist and drummer. By the time their set was over, the audience was in a pretty good mood. Not a bad way to open a show nobody ever heard of.

The story is by Scott Ehrlich – who has never written anything. The book is by Scott Ehrlich and Penny Orloff. The lyrics are by Joshua Rich… and Scott Ehrlich. The show is produced by Scott Ehrlich. And to cap it all off, starring in Pearly Gates is… you guessed it – Scott Ehrlich. In the program notes, Ehrlich clearly states he has never sung before, and never done a play, but those activities were on his “bucket list.”

So, how does Ehrlich do? I have to say that, except for a few missed pitches, his singing is okay. Sometimes, better than okay. Except for a few awkward actions, he does fine any time he is on the stage – which is about 90 percent of the show. There is something admirable about his commitment to the performance, that goes beyond talent. In a unique way, he succeeds as Jason Burns, a man who finds out he has only a short time left to live.

Of course, he has help. Lots of help. A large cast backs Ehrlich up. Fiona Bates gives a powerhouse performance as Jason Burns’ wife. Ehrlich’s daughter, Taylor Ehrlich, plays his onstage daughter. Zachary Rice plays her little brother. They both have a natural ease onstage that sets them apart from the usual, artificially cute Hollywood kid actors. Both children have sweet, clear soprano voices that make the final scene heartbreaking.

A stand-out as Jason Burns’ father  is 80-something Tony Molina, who apparently shared the marquee with Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sammy Davis, Jr., back in the Roseland era. His beautiful voice is still strong, and his phrasing is wonderful. Playing opposite him as Jason’s mother is a pretty and slender senior citizen, Miriam Rosen. Rosen’s timing and delivery get big laughs, and she was the only actor whose speech was completely clear. Her voice is incredibly powerful, going from alto to high soprano, and she can make it do absolutely anything. Her song in the funeral scene was just beautiful. Rosen even dances, easily keeping up with much younger cast members.

The director was Trace Oakley, who kept the proceedings moving along. There were a few really great touches, like when a chorus of senior citizens mimes despair behind white masks. The small amount of choreography by Neisha Folks isn’t that good – kind of awkward jazz steps that don’t really suit the dancers.

The songs are pretty standard musical numbers, but a lot of the lyrics are really clever. Joshua Rich begins with a fun full-company number and ends with a big anthem. In between, his songs go from funny to angry to wistful to tragic, and the tunes stay with you after the curtain comes down. The show moves to Lancaster and Thousand Oaks, and there is talk of an off-Broadway run in the Fall.

- By Ellen Kahan

For information or tickets, go to www.pearlygatesmusical.com.

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