Beverly Hills Playhouse Veteran Ross Kalling's Lyricism Helps Make "Suburban Showgirl" a Hit

Palmer Davis as Wendy Walker.
Palmer Davis as Wendy Walker.

Palmer Davis’ one-woman show, a fictionalized account of a dancer and mother loosely based on her life and career, is even better the second time around. I saw it closing day this August at the less plush North Hollywood Arts Complex. The Malibu Playhouse is gorgeous and well worth the drive to Zuma Beach, a good 10 or 15 minutes past the Colony and Cross Creek. Suburban Showgirl is tighter and sharper under its new director, Cate Caplin, and I think has what it takes to play to larger audiences over a long period of time.

Palmer is an accomplished triple threat–dancer/actress/singer–who began to study dance at 7 and graduated with a degree  from UCLA’s prestigious dance department. Born in San Diego, she lettered in volleyball and track and still holds the record at her high school for the high jump. (Now, the height of her jumps, which struck me in August, makes sense!)

The show traces the rise of Wendy Walker’s career both in musical theater and dance. It begins in Las Vegas, where Wendy is currently the “ta da” girl in a magic show. This is not where the former Rockette imagined herself after years of national Broadway tours and other shows. Within minutes,  Wendy gets locked in the bathroom as a result of a fluky door she’s been complaining about for weeks. This launches the flashbacks around which the show is organized; it’s a familiar device in a show of this kind, but no less effective for its familiarity.

The vignettes are well-written and Palmer has real comedic chops. She’s far funnier than the majority of actors working in today’s unfunny, interchangeable sitcoms. I’m likely a harsher critic of sitcoms than most because I grew up watching Friday night tapings of Family Ties at Paramount with my childhood best friend, Shana Goldberg-Meehan, to say nothing of being driven to school by carpool dad, Bob Schiller, an Emmy-winning writer of I Love LucyAll in the Family, and Maude. But most modern sitcoms just don’t make me laugh. I haven’t loved a sitcom since Sports Night (though that was more a dramedy) and confess Modern Family did nothing for me the two times I tried to like it.

Unlike a lot of modern television, Suburban Showgirl is consistently funny, from little Wendy’s mean British ballet teacher to Martha, the UCLA modern dance professor, who told her to “just be,” in a hilarious send-up of college dance departments. Palmer seamlessly adopts the personas of her mother, grandmother, daughter, dance partner, teachers, agent and reluctant high school students (most memorably Omar, a homeboy with a heart).

Palmer’s dance talent is quite simply astounding; she’s equally at home in ballet, modern, tap, and jazz. I cried more this time, both because I haven’t danced in three months due to injuries and really miss class, and partly because a part of me always wanted to be a musical comedy actress. I don’t mean to suggest that I would have chosen a career in the performing arts over a (failed) career in the academy: an equally strong part of me wanted to be a professor of English at a comparatively young age. But Palmer is what part of me always wanted to be when I grew up, and I don’t think that dream ever dies if it’s deeply enough embedded in your soul (and cultivated by a childhood immersed in the arts). Hence, the tears I shed from first number to last.

But under all the dance and laughter (her turn as a hip hop teacher perhaps the funniest) is heartbreak. Palmer is as impressive in her dramatic moments as her comedic ones, particularly when when her “Irish husband” (a bittersweet euphemism for drunk) does what alcoholic (writer) spouses invariably do: disappoints her.  Wendy and Charlie O’Hara, a writer, are initially happy as struggling artists. He “loves her for her” and as long as she has enough money for dance class, she’s content.

They eventually marry and things seem to be going relatively well, though from the beginning, Wendy’s career clearly outstrips Charlie’s.  They always meant to have children, but there is never a right time when you’re a performer, particularly a dancer.  Wendy gets pregnant (twice) but juggles work and motherhood admirably.

Charlie’s drinking progresses, and by the time they leave LA for Vegas for a new start, it’s clear from the one-sided cell phone calls that he’s too far gone either to be a husband or a father. We know Charlie is in jail at the beginning of the show but don’t find out until the end why (it’s nothing violent or catastrophic). I won’t reveal the show’s dramatic climax or conclusion, but Palmer’s response to the phone call she learns Charlie is in jail gives rise to a burst of raw and spontaneous choreography, a pure expression of pain through movement.

Suburban Showgirl ends on a tentatively hopeful note. We don’t know how it’s all going to turn out for Wendy, but we’re confident she’ll find her way, just as her improbably uncoordinated daughter Hanna (who displays neither interest in, nor aptitude for, dance), finally “finds her dance,” frolicking in the sprinklers. Like the best moments in the show, it makes you laugh and cry: cry, because Wendy so wants to share her love of dance with Hanna; laugh, because it is Omar–with whom Wendy has such a touching relationship–who informs “Miss Walker” that her daughter is dancing in the water.

A final note: as impressive as are Davis’ choreography, writing, dancing, and acting, and Cate Caplin’s choreography and direction, the show would not reach the heights it does were it not for Ross Kalling’s musical contributions. The songs are beautiful and the score positively haunting. Kalling is an award-winning pianist and musical director with a long list of credits, including a fifteen-year stint at the prestigious Beverly Hills Playhouse, during which time he worked with Anthony Heald, Dorothy Lyman, Jeffrey Tambor, Gene Reynolds and the legendary Milton Katselas.

The show has wide appeal: my teen dancer nieces loved it, as did my brother, a writer who isn’t the musical theater nut I am. I roped him into coming and he kept thanking me for organizing the afternoon with the girls on the eve of Thanksgiving. 

Most New Yorkers are loathe to admit it, but LA has a thriving theater scene. Where LA remains weak is musical theater and cabaret (which is why the calendars of 54 Below, the Laurie Beachman Theater and the Metropolitan Room are the first things I check the week I'm flying back to the city every two or so months). Suburban Showgirl is a rarity: an extraordinary original musical from--and in--Los Angeles by a native Southern Californian.

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