It's easy to create a musical revue. All you need is a grand piano, a medley of snappy show tunes and a few good people to sell the songs and exchange the occasional patter.

Making a musical revue that charms an audience for a full evening is a lot more tricky. Most revues, like cabaret acts, fizzle out fast for lack of a strong theatrical thrust.

"Tune the Grand Up" works better than most. This revue of show tunes with words and music by Jerry Herman--culled from Broadway hits the likes of "Mame," "Hello, Dolly," and "La Cage Aux Folles"--has plenty of help from other quarters. It still resorts to hyperactive, hard-sell tactics in its opening segments. But the show builds momentum as it delves deeper into the Herman repertory, and it has a well-balanced cast to carry it off. That accounts for its successful two-year run in San Francisco, before the whole enterprise moved into town for a monthlong stay at the San Diego Repertory Theatre's Lyceum Space.

"Tune the Grand Up" has the obligatory bare-bones decor of a standard musical revue--a few stools and a grand piano. But a few sly theatrical effects and a strong dose of professional polish set it apart. Herman's songs are only part of the slick package.

Paul Gilger, who conceived, wrote and designed the revue; director Barbara Valente, who also choreographed it, and musical director-vocal arranger-pianist James Followell, who chimes in for some of the song-and-dance bits as well, have made the most of their opportunities. The revue swings along seamlessly, spreading its infectious optimism, romantic notions and comic insights along the way.

The show owes its name to a song from "Mame," one of three dozen or more Herman tunes in the revue. They're sung by a vivacious sextet: Cindy Herron, John Nockels, Tim Connell, Mimi Unser, Darlene Popovic and Followell, who makes practically all of his contributions from the seat at the grand piano.

These talented singers add up to more than the sum of their parts. And each has a few chances to go it alone in the spotlight. Followell starts the ball rolling by tickling the ivories on a "baby" grand (a toy piano). Then the rest of the cast gets into the act with gusto.

Many of the songs are homogenized Broadway formula tunes. However, Gilger has uncovered a few Herman gems, like the neglected "It Takes a Woman" and "I Won't Send Roses." They work wonderfully--and are not overshadowed by any of the big Herman hits. "Tap Your Troubles Away," a clever spoof sung by Herron and Unser (with some dandy hoofing by Followell) is a delightful case in point.

Lightweight humor abounds. Lines like, "If life is a banquet, I stuffed myself," sung with a satirical bite by a very pregnant Herron, had the opening-night audience in stitches.

The show is organized in categories, such as Romance, Optimism, Discord, The Movies, Reflections, and the proverbial Happy Ending. Discord, a natural haven for Herman's torch songs and tender ballads, is one of the best, and it doesn't need any big show-stoppers to bring down the house.

Herman specializes in songs that send an audience home humming. "Tune the Grand Up" continues that tradition.

"TUNE THE GRAND UP" A musical review of Jerry Herman's show tunes, created and designed by Paul Gilger, directed and choreographed by Barbara Valente. Music director/pianist/vocal arranger is James Followell. Costumes by Roger Speicher, with Cindy Herron, John Nockels, Tim Connell, Mimi Unser, Darlene Popovic. At 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sundays through April 5 at the Lyceum Space, Horton Plaza, San Diego.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World