Where were you in 1965? It was a year of ups and downs. The Beatles were in full swing — but so was the war in Vietnam. Television gave us sitcoms with images of an idealized America — but also urban neighborhoods ablaze with civil unrest.
“A Sign of the Times,” now onstage at the Delaware Theatre Company, offers a tuneful but not-so-sentimental journey back to that time when hemlines were rising, barriers were falling, and there seemed to be more questions than answers.
Indeed, the musical, which premiered two years ago at The Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut, goes far beyond nostalgia. Baby boomers can tap their toes to the music they grew up with, but younger audiences can also relate since many of the issues of a half century ago are making headlines today.
Richard Robin’s story is a reliable one: 20-something Cindy leaves the safety of Centreville, Ohio, for New York City and the chance to record America’s cultural revolution with her camera. In the process, she learns the true meaning of love, friendship and the importance of being true to oneself.
What’s most interesting about this musical is the way in which the ready-made soundtrack is seamlessly stitched into the plot. Award-winning comedy writer/actor Bruce Vilanch, who wrote the book for the show, remarked that some songs just seem to have Broadway in their DNA, and “Sign” features the best of them to best advantage.
The show leans heavily on the catalogue of ’60s songbird Petula Clark, including “Color My World,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “Who Am I,” the title song and, of course, her signature “Downtown.” But there’s also Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walking,” Elvis Presley’s “If I Can Dream,” Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” and the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.”
Director Gabriel Barre takes the impressively credentialed cast on a fun-filled romp through the nightclubs, subways, shabby apartments, penthouses and Madison Avenue advertising agencies of 1960s New York. Chilina Kennedy (Carole King in Broadway’s “Beautiful”) is a sweet but steely Cindy who delivers “You Don’t Own Me” with a punch that would have made the late Lesley Gore proud. Ryan Silverman’s Brian, the frequently sauced advertising whiz, is a wonderfully nefarious Lothario with a velvety baritone to match. Drew Seeley’s Matt, Cindy’s hometown beau, is convincingly clueless, wanting nothing more than to keep her barefoot and pregnant — and safe. He unwittingly cuts her to the quick when he tells her that her photography is not “real” work.
Crystal Lucas-Perry is a standout as Tanya, Cindy’s streetwise African-American apartment mate. She helps Cindy navigate New York City, shows her how to dress and what to watch out for. She’s not ashamed about profiting from her race as an in-demand “token” in the white world. She happens into a romance with peaceful protester Dennis (Steven Grant Douglas) and belts out a heart-wrenching “Society’s Child” and an electrifying “Rescue Me.” She is nothing less than the heart and soul of the production.
JoAnn M. Miller’s choreography — with ample help from a rockin’-out band — keeps the cast stepping with a sampler of some of the more popular dance crazes of the time while costumer Jen Caprio outfits them with the miniskirts, peasant-style blouses and dashikis found in closets and drawers of the era.
Paul Tate dePoo III’s set made an easy transition from the quaintly appointed 1960s Midwestern kitchen to the streets, domiciles, offices and clubs of New York City. Projections by 59 Productions add atmosphere with a visual review of the times. The entire production takes place under the vibrant lighting of Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz. “A Sign of the Times” offers a perfect break from the holiday rush: thoughtful but not overly so, nostalgic but timely … and just plain fun.
“A Sign of the Times” runs now through Dec. 23 at the Delaware Theatre Company at 200 Water St. along the Wilmington Riverfront. For more information and to purchase tickets: www.delawaretheatre.org or call 302-594-1100.