Alliance Theatre is presenting the sparkling world premiere of “Trading Places: The Musical” through June 26.
The show is loosely based on the 1983 film “Trading Places,” the dated John Landis comedy starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy.
A sterling, Broadway-laden team – led by director Kenny Leon – has created the current work. As you must know, Mr. Leon has become a major national force in theatre and film, directing Broadway plays and films, winning Tony Awards and all sorts of accolades. He’s returning to his roots here: He used to be artistic director of the Alliance, a post now held by the estimable Susan V. Booth.
The book is by Thomas Lennon; the music and lyrics are by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. All three of these have major credits too numerous to list.
This iteration of “Trading Places” is sassy, smart, and very funny, but its secret weapon is a big heart, which you will discover if you see it; and I hope you do. The songs are very witty with a big brass sound that says New York to me, although the show is set in Philadelphia. They are performed by a terrific cast of actor-singers, any of whom could carry a show by themselves.
The wealthy Duke brothers, Mortimer (Marc Kudisch) and Randolph (Lenny Wolpe) own a commodities brokerage firm, and they have opposing views on the issue of nature versus nurture. They decide to make a wager and conduct an experiment —switching the lives of two people on opposite sides of the social hierarchy: their well-mannered and educated employee Louis Winthorpe III (Bryce Pinkham), engaged to their grandniece Penelope (McKenzie Kurtz) – and a poor, Black street hustler named Billie Rae Valentine (Aneesa Folds). The brothers like to play fast and loose with others’ lives.
Louis is framed as a thief and drug dealer with the help of a certain Mr. Beeks (Josh Lamon), a slippery character on the Dukes’ payroll. Louis is fired from Duke & Duke, his bank accounts frozen, and he is denied entry to his Duke-owned home. So the wealthy, well-born Louis is suddenly homeless, while Billie Rae joins the firm and prospers easily.
On the street, Louis attempts to sell his expensive watch but can get virtually nothing for it; he sings “What Time Is It in Gstaad?” – a funny, oddly poignant song because poor Louis has zero street smarts.
But he gets rescued and taken in by Phil (Michael Longoria), a gay, Latinx drag queen with a lot of compassion. He sings “Abre Tus Ojos” (open your eyes) to Louis, himself, and the world. Mr. Longoria is funny, charming, and moving; in a cast of brilliant talent, he stands out.
There has been social media criticism of the Phil character, and it quite frankly puzzles me. Yes, Phil is a drag queen, but he is totally ingratiating. Director Leon says in the program that he “wanted to find as much diversity in the telling of the story…” and to artsatl.com he said “…We can learn how far or how much we have evolved as people in terms of sexual fluidity, gender differences, racial differences and the way men treat women.”
I’m not going to reveal more of the plot, except to remind you that this is a musical comedy, and things are probably going to work out fine. One moment that stays with me is near the end of the show when Louis tries to apologize to Billie Rae, but she stops him and says, concerning his behavior, that “You didn’t see me.” With that comment she is reminding all of us that we need to really see one another; it’s a plea for human empathy.
So much talent in this show! You will long remember Ms. Folds’ (Billie Rae) “eleven o’clock number” called “Not Anymore.” Her voice is soaring, powerful, and also subtle. She’s a major talent.
So is everyone I’ve mentioned, especially Mr. Pinkham (Louis), whose emotional range is moving and startling. I failed to mention the excellent Don Stephenson as Coleman, the butler whose name nobody can quite remember. Truly, there are no small parts. Mr. Leon has taken care to ask each actor for his/her best; he has gotten it.
Since it’s the Alliance, we know to expect flawless scenic design (Beowulf Boritt), as well as lighting design (Adam Honoré), costumes by Emilio Sosa, choreography by Fatima Robinson. I wish I could mention more performers and technical support team members, but they’re all in the program—when you see the show.
Finally, I’ll mention that the opening night audience was pretty much delirious with joy and thunderous applause and whistles. This is a show that is probably bound for Broadway; in fact, you can bet on it.
For tickets and more information, visit alliancetheatre.org.