There comes a time in most creative people’s lives when they have to make a choice: keep on with the acting/music/writing/ painting/(fill in your artistic passion here) with the hope that it will pay the bills, or choose a more traditional path for keeping a roof over your head.
In "Move It and It’s Yours," a musical by Bill Weeden, David Finkle and Sally Fay, and directed by Jeff Cohen, playing at Passage Theater through November 20, protagonist Charlie Ross (Dann Fink) is faced with this very same choice. After taking a "temporary job" as a trade magazine editor 16 years ago to help pay the bills, Charlie is going to move in with Susan, his high-powered businesswoman fiance, and make a clean break from his dream of creating his living from his passion: the piano. After flying to Vegas that evening for their wedding the only thing left to do is get rid of the baby grand piano.
As the play opens, Charlie is alone in his apartment – empty except for the piano. When he discovers that movers want $1,500 to haul the piano away, he enlists Susan to post signs around the neighborhood, advertising the piano: "Move it and it’s yours."
The sign attracts a varied bunch of interested parties – played by a skilled ensemble of actors/singers – who in the course of their exchanges all wind up asking Charlie: Why are you getting rid of the piano?
And from the start of the show, it’s hard not to wonder why Charlie hasn’t asked the same question. In casual jeans, sneakers, and polo shirt, he is in stark contrast to Susan (Amanda Weeden), who is decked out in a power suit and heels. When Susan says: "The minute you get rid of this piano, things are going to open up for you," and suggests that opening up could mean that he might be lucky enough to become an account executive, it’s hard not to see what’s going to happen to Charlie, the piano, and the fiance.
The set is incredibly simple – it’s an empty apartment, after all – composed of flats painted in white, gray and black, with a window, a door, and on the back wall above the piano, an empty bookshelf. When lit from behind, the back wall reveals a band – piano, drums, and bass. It was hard to tell from the position of Charlie’s piano on the stage (hands were hidden), but I suspect that pianist Gregg Payne was playing behind that screen for all of the actors when it was time for them to "play."
As Charlie, Fink is a likeable leading man – he resembles David Naughton (for those of you who remember the "American Werewolf in London" and the "I’m a Pepper" commercials of the early 1980s) and his voice is beautiful. He was also onstage the entire time in the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission), no easy task. His opening song, "Outta Here," sets up the story – he’s tired of the way things have been, and he’s ready for a change. Fink plays the longing well, but the song doesn’t have the grab-you-in-the-guts feeling that most "I want" songs in musicals do.
And that’s easy enough to do when people start coming in to check out the piano. The characters who walk through the door border on stereotypes, but again, it doesn’t really matter – they’re all amusing and quirky.
The first to respond is Ron (John Paul Skocik), an entrepreneur who probably OD’ed on one too many Anthony Robbins infomercials. He wants the piano, but rushes out the door on an urgent cell phone call before making arrangements.
After Ron leaves, the ebullient former Broadway chorus girl, Bryna Bronstein (irresistibly played by Patti Mariano) bursts through the door decked out in a pink pantsuit and matching turban with leopard accents (great character development through costuming: hats off to Gail Cooper-Hecht). Bryna wants the piano for a musical that she’s producing at a nearby senior citizens center, a musical that just happens to be about a former Broadway chorus girl who is putting on a musical at a senior citizens center. Her anthem/song "It Ain’t Over ’til the Fat Lady Sings" ends in a kickline of seniors decked out in turbans, mumus, and slippers, with Mariano landing a very solid cartwheel. At the end of the song, the audience was actually whooping.
The parade of strange characters who come and go include wannabee rock star Sheldon (Eddie Varley) and his dominatrix girlfriend Eloise (Natalie Joy Johnson); Lou, the proprietor of the neighborhood hardware store (Jeffery V. Thompson), who nearly has a heart attack after running up the five flights of stairs to the apartment to nab Caresse, a shoplifter (Johnson, again); and a 10-year-old kid (David Mathews), who is trying to play his divorced parents against one other by convincing his father to take the piano – influencing his mother enough to buy him the bike he’s been eyeing.
Both of Charlie’s ex-wives (also played by Weeden) make an appearance; they’ve heard that he’s getting rid of the piano, and they feel the need to weigh in on the matter. Wife #1, Diane, reminds him, in the sweet ballad "Into a Song," that he had dreams of creating music that moved people. "I know you, Charlie," she says, "and I don’t get it. You used to love this piano and now you don’t want to play anymore? That’s a shame." Wife #2, Fern, is part nurturing earth mother, part goofball psychic, part sex kitten, and she claims that she knows that Charlie has changed his mind about the piano, but Charlie isn’t buying it – yet.
It’s hard to point to standouts in the cast, because the ensemble was so solid. I’ve already raved about Fink and Mariano, but other standouts include Johnson, who nearly tore the house down as Caresse in "In This House," by taking an otherwise simple song and exploding it in big, humorous "American Idol" style vocal pyrotechnics – and wow, did they sparkle. In the same number Thompson vocally rockets to the rafters, tossing some wow-a-fying gospel goodies in at the end.
And since the piano was such a huge "character" in the play, the man behind the curtain, pianist and musical director Gregg Payne, deserves a hand too.
In the end, what everyone (audience included) has known about Charlie all along finally hits him, and just in time Bryna (Mariano) bursts back to the apartment with a new idea for a musical for Charlie: "Middle aged guy loses his purpose, got sidetracked, about to give away the last tangible remnant of his lost dream."
Predictable in many ways perhaps, but full of great performances and laughs, "Move It and It’s Yours" is worth catching. And who knows – it might just get you to dust off your old dreams.
Move It and It’s Yours, Passage Theater Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Through Sunday, November 20, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. $25. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org. Secure, free off-street parking is available across the street.