Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of Adiós Mamá Carlota
In a heartfelt biographical and musical tribute to his grandfather, father, and uncle, A Spoonful of Sherman, Robert (Robbie) J. Sherman (book) takes us through a ninety-year tasting of fifty-five of the songs his familyincluding himselfhave written, picking them from the more than 250 others he could not include. Premiering in the U.K. in 2014 and having since toured extensively there and in Ireland, A Spoonful of Sherman now has its U.S. premiere at San Jose's newest venue for live productions of musicals, Guggenheim Entertainment's 3Below Theaters and Lounge. With a cast of five who sing, dance and cavort with much talent and glee through the plethora of lyrics and tunes, 3Below's A Spoonful of Sherman is overall delightful and a temptation for humming and singing along that is difficult to resist.
Taking turns in providing tidbit details about the family history, cast members begin by relating how that first song of Al Sherman, "Share Your Sorrow," was published just in time for his first royalty check to pay for the delivery of his first son, Robert. But it was Al's next published tune, "Livin' in the Sunlight, Lovin' in the Moonlight," that particularly made him famous, with its being sung by Maurice Chevalier in the movie, The Big Pond. In big voice with his big eyes sparkling, Steve Guggenheim sets a high standard that he and his castmates will continue to meet as he sings yet another example of the happy-go-lucky lyrics the Sherman patriarch wrote to set the standard for his progenies: "Living in the sunlight, loving in the moonlight, having a wonderful time." (The 1930 song went on to become a "SpongeBob SquarePants" opening episode tune with the 1968 version by ukulele-plucking Tiny Timjust one example of scores of other Shermans' songs that have had long, long legs.)
The musical biography progresses through the decades, with songs reflecting the flavor and the events of the times, usually offering a romantic, hopeful, and even funny slant on even the worst of those times. One prime example of such a period song that rings with early 1950s richness is Al Sherman's last big hit, "Comes A-Long A-Love," sung on this stage by Shannon Guggenheim. Her clear, jazzy, sparkling vocals deliver the night's first real showstopper, with Ms. Guggenheim adding a big-smile personality that in enhanced by her smoothly performed dance of both hands and feet before she ends with a belting that shakes the timbers. Throughout the show, Ms. Guggenheim will bring a contagious spring in both voice and step to numbers she solos (e.g., "The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers") and to the many on which she is joined by the entire company.
In 1951, we are told, Bob and his brother Dick began writing songs together after the challenge of a bet by their dad that they could not do so. The life-long partnership is best described in their 1972 theme from Snoopy Come Home, "The Best of Buddies," as sung for us with brotherly gusto by Steve Guggenheim and F. James Raasch: "Me and you, a two man crew, side by side we're unified, and we will never be divided." As we hear song after song from such family-friendly movies (many with Disney in the title) as Winnie the Pooh, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and of course, Mary Poppins, the two brothers found a winning formula that led them to writing more songs for more movies than any other writing team in history (over thirty-five).
"You're Sixteen," the brothers' first big hit, has been re-recorded many times since rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette initially sent it flying high in the charts (including a 1973 re-release by none other than Ringo Starr). Bringing his cheerful, attractive vocals that cannot help but elicit a smile from those listening, F. James Raasch is joined by Theresa Swain in a '50s-style jitterbug while he croons away, "You're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine."
Theresa Swain also has a number of opportunities to shine as the song catalogue of the brothers mounts ever fuller from the 1960s through the rest of the century. "Pretty," "pleasing," and "perfectly pleasant" may not be words we normally use today to describe one's vocal excellence; but in listening to Ms. Swain sing a number like "My Own Home" or "Suddenly It Happens," these are words that cannot help but come to mind. But when she has the honor of leading the company in "A Spoonful of Sugar" (just one of nine Mary Poppins numbers the company brings exuberantly to the stage), Theresa Swain glistens with a chipper, crisp voice only Mary Poppins herself could actually have. She is joined by a hilariously pecking "robin," James Raasch, whose whistling drew a mid-song round of applause.
Rounding out the cast of five is Susan Gundunas, who like the other four has starred in past productions of 3Below's Guggenheim Entertainment. Ms. Gundunas' "The Whistle Tune" is one of her best numbers of the evening, offering her emotionally powerful voice in the soft, low registers where it particularly shines.
When singing as a total company, the cast offers both beautifully intertwined harmonies ("There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" or the barbershop quartet-harmonized "That's What Friends Are For," for instance) as well as comically produced numbers where silly monkeys ("I Wanna Be Like You"), life-size bugs ("The Ugly Bug Ball"), or licking cats ("The Aristocats") are part of their otherwise well-sung deliveries. Taking direction from the choreography designed by cast member Shannon Guggenheim, the company steps, kicks, turns and twists with precision through the decades' styles and through movie numbers we all immediately recognize (e.g., "Step in Time" from Mary Poppins).
Scott Evan Guggenheim deftly directs the constant changes in blocking and stage set-up, with the stage's two upright pianos constantly being rolled into another configuration for the cast to use as props, hallways and tables. Pianist Barry Koron never misses a note and is joined by various cast members on the other keyboard.
Gabriella Slade populates her brick-walled set design with items that reference many of the songs (a kite, Mary's bird-headed umbrella, a teddy bear), but there are also some elements that escape immediate connections with the show (encyclopedic books and a wall of small, metal file cabinets). The costumes of Julie Englebrecht work really well for the first act, with men in suits of plaid and shirts with arm garters, and with women in bright-colored, petticoat-puffing dresses of polka dots. However, those same costumes seem out of place in act two as the decades progress into the latter parts of the twentieth century.
While there is so much to enjoy and relish as the Sherman family numbers continue to ring forth, by the last twenty or so minutes, there is almost too much to enjoy. There is a point when the litany of fifty-five songs begins to lose its unique appeal just due to exposure to so many. Three included that are written by Robbie Sherman (from his 2015 musical Love Birds)seem particularly out of place in this story mostly about his uncle and his father. At issue, too, is that the narrative of that family history is delivered with such sincerity and seriousness (and with so many meticulous details) that the telling comes across at times as just too "motherhood and apple pie." This is not a balanced look at the ups and downs, good and bad of these men's lives. This is a kaleidoscope version of everything beautiful and perfect.
One final note: These songs need to speak to a new generation and one not as lily white as much of the original audience of the Shermans. Casting with an eye to a more diverse group of singerseven though these five are extremely talentedcould go a long way toward opening up these songs to the population of places, like San Jose, where many colors and ethnicities are represented.
That said, A Spoonful of Sherman is well worth dipping into for an evening of reveling in the rich repertoire of the Sherman Brothers. How fun it is to see performed so many songs that much of the world still daily hums and even knows all the words.
A Spoonful of Sherman, through May 5, 2019, at 3Below Theaters & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets are available online at 3belowtheaters.com.