'For the Record: Scorsese — American Crime Requiem': Theater Review

Scorsese - Key Art - H - 2016
Great singers, great songs and great movies combine for less-than-great cabaret.

'Taxi Driver,' 'Goodfellas,' 'Casino' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street' form the basis of this latest film-focused cabaret mashup in the 'For the Record' series, premiering at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.

If you ever felt classic rock tunes like "Gimme Shelter" and "Satisfaction" were great on their own but could benefit from a little Broadway sizzle, then For the Record: Scorsese — American Crime Requiem is the perfect show for you. A mashup of four Martin Scorsese screen hits — Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street, throwing in a nod to Raging Bull — the show sets memorable movie scenes against live performances of songs from those soundtracks. "I see this as a theme park ride through Scorsese for grownups," says Jersey Boys Tony winner John Lloyd Young, who plays Sam Rothstein from Casino. It might sound like a good idea to some, but it's hard to imagine a director as exacting about his work as Scorsese being impressed.

In 2009, the producing trio of Shane Scheel, Anderson Davis and Christopher Lloyd Bratten decided there was just too much talent going to waste in Hollywood and began staging supper-club shows at the now-defunct Mark's Restaurant in West Hollywood. They followed with more productions at Los Feliz's Rockwell Table & Stage, where they produced FTR: Tarantino, FTR: Brat Pack (based on the movies of director John Hughes) and FTR: BAZ (Baz Luhrmann), each following the same format.

With a residency at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs, a Las Vegas co-production with Cirque du Soleil and now a deal with ABC to bring FTR to television, the format has become a crowd favorite, counting actors like Evan Rachel Wood and Rumer Willis among its alumni.

For FTR: Scorsese, the company’s greatest challenge was how to transpose its trademark immersive style from a more conducive nightclub to a conventional theater like the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. To blur the lines between performance and audience, 90 minutes before the curtain, ticket-holders are invited into the theater’s lobby and adjacent Promenade Terrace, transformed into a bistro garden with red-and-white checkered tablecloths, candlelight, music and films by Scorsese, Fellini and Rossellini playing on the walls.

Once inside the theater, some patrons are seated on the stage amid scenic designer Kyle Courter's four-tiered set, including a bar in the orchestra pit, a split-level Copacabana-style nightclub above it, and the band on risers stage right and left. The cast frequently enter from the aisles, but that hardly helps achieve the immersive quality the show might have had during tryouts at Rockwell Table & Stage.

While the new show plays a bit like Scorsese's greatest hits, taking memorable scenes out of context saps them of their energy, rendering them closer to pastiche than homage. Not helpful is the casting of actors like Young, who is about as intimidating as vintage De Niro is cuddly. Though he was chosen more for his singing voice than for the brutish persona of the Casino character, Young nevertheless fares better than James Byous playing Travis Bickle. The eponymous taxi driver is now a bartender stirred to action by his gangster customers' mistreatment of women. But Byous comes across more as disgruntled busboy than psychopath. Unfortunately, during the first-act climax when he sports a Mohawk and performs the famous “You talkin’ to me?” bit, the moment drew unwanted laughter on press night.

The standout in the cast is Jason Paige playing Joe Pesci's characters. He delivers the same mix of homicidal hysteria and humor that the actor brought to the movies, though he may have been helped by the hyperbolic quality of Pesci’s portrayals; less nuance and more braggadocio.

Whatever FTR: Scorsese lacks in drama it makes up for in outstanding vocal interpretations of the show’s many classic rock and songbook standards. As Karen from Goodfellas, Pia Toscano (American Idol) makes an impression early on with the Italian ballad, "Il Cielo in Una Stanza," then goes on to seal the deal as one of the best singers you never heard of with the country standard, “I’m Sorry."

Fresh off her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in Bright Star, Carmen Cusack rivals Toscano playing Ginger from Casino, with her own reprise of "I'm Sorry," after bringing the house down earlier with the Patsy Cline classic, "Sweet Dreams."

In fact, none of the singing in the show is substandard — Grammy nominee B. Slade brings a gritty blues style to songs like "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man" and "The Thrill Is Gone," and Justin Mortelliti cuts up in his rendition of the Sid Vicious take on the Sinatra standard, "My Way." Young brings a hint of Frankie Valli to "The 'In' Crowd" and "Stardust," while Zak Resnick sets the tone with a velvety "Rags to Riches" from Goodfellas.

With FTR: Scorsese, the Wallis kicks off its tenure under new artistic director Paul Crewes, formerly of the U.K.’s Kneehigh Theatre, best known in recent years for its outstanding and widely traveled adaptation of Brief Encounter. Like the current show, that one had roots in cinema, but its theatrical makeover was less an homage than a radical reinvention that played knowingly with the distinctions between the two mediums.

Scorsese's movies are known for their violence and gritty realism, descriptors not normally associated with song and dance. The mobsters in this musical salute bring to mind the ne'er-do-wells of Guys and Dolls, an undisputed classic. But those characters are a far cry from the mean streets Scorsese has spent a lifetime chronicling.

Venue: The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: James Byous, Carmen Cusack, Dionne Gipson, Lindsey Gort, Olivia Harris, Doug Kreeger, Justin Mortelliti, Jason Paige, Zac Resnick, B. Slade, Pia Toscano, John Lloyd Young
Director: Anderson Davis
Set designers: Kyle Courter, Matt Steinbrenner
Costume designer: Steve Mazurek
Lighting designers: Dan Efros, Michael Berger
Sound designer: Ben Soldate
Choreographers: Nick Florez, R.J. Durrell
Music director: Jesse Vargas
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in association with Shane Scheel, Ad Astra Live