By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
One of the funniest comedies of the big screen of 1983 was “Trading Places,” Eddie Murphy’s sophomore vehicle in which he starred opposite fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Dan Akroyd.
Borrowed in part from Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” the premise was simple enough. One step ahead of the law, Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine uses his wits to get ahead in Chicago as a Black confidence man. Akroyd’s character of Louis Winthrop, III, is a White-privileged and Harvard-educated financial whiz working for the arrogant and ruthless Mortimer and Randolph Duke, who provide Winthrop with everything Valentine lacks.
On the whim of a wager between the two Duke brothers, Louis is framed as a thief and sent to jail, while Valentine is elevated and installed in Winthrop’s position at the firm. One other caveat for the bet to be won was that Louis would have to resort to a life of crime.
While much of the original premise survived the film’s reboot into a full-fledged musical, Thomas Lennon’s book for Trading Places: The Musical had one very big change that undoubtedly took diehard fans of the movie by surprise. Billy Ray Valentine was transformed into Billie Rae Valentine and she carried with her the additional gravitas of a woman attempting to get ahead in business while also simultaneously having to overcome societal hardships of racism and low income status.
The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta was the launching pad for Kenny Leon’s rocketing career as a Tony Award-winning director on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun) and in Hollywood. A founder and longtime artistic director at the Alliance, he returned to his hometown to direct the world premiere of Trading Place: The Musical prior to its expected run on the Great White Way. Leon gave Atlanta a polished work that might need some minor tweaking, but was otherwise ready to brings laughs and entertain audiences on Broadway.
Broadway veteran Aneesa Folds (Freestyle Love Supreme) stepped boldly into the role with an assurance and style that immediately signaled to audience members she was unafraid to take the beloved story into previously uncharted territory. When she began singing her part as Billie Rae with the altogether pleasing music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, there were few in doubt she was born to take her memorable character to the Broadway stage.
Folds possesses a natural stage talent with brilliant comic timing and a personality that sparkled and endeared her to the audience. By the end of Act I, there were few who would bemoan the gender swap for Billie Rae as she elevated the iconic Eddie Murphy film performance into one for the stage that was not only funny, but vibrant and captivating. Lennon’s book also reset the action from Chicago to Philadelphia and the opening song, “Welcome To Philly,” led by Folds with the entire ensemble behind her, firmly established her irreverence towards authority and her earnest efforts to get ahead, even if she had to cross the lines of legality occasionally.
As if to cement the deal, her leading man was Broadway’s own Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder, Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn”) as Winthrop. As in the film portrayal by Akroyd, Pinkham was a somewhat clueless and entitled wunderkind dealing with the commodities market that makes considerable profit for the Duke brothers. He lives in the lap of luxury attended to his every need by his butler Coleman (a very droll Don Stephenson), while doting on his fiancée Penelope Van Verst, the Dukes’ very own niece, played outrageously as the blondest of the blondes by Broadway’s McKenzie Kurtz (Frozen).
Pinkham’s answer to Folds’ “Welcome To Philly” was the song he sang with backing vocals from the other affluent members of The Heritage Club – his men’s club – and based on one of the more famous lines from the film: “Looking Good, Feeling Good.” Louis was on top of the world, but Billie Rae countered with a mantra of her own in “All You Need Is a Scheme,” her anthem on getting ahead in the world and a perfect “I want” number.
Louis’ fall from grace is a very important part of the story, because it is through his decline and the eventual process of rebuilding his life where he achieved a true connection to his humanity, strengthening his relationship with Penelope and even befriending Billie Rae. One of the best of Pinkham’s moments on stage as Louis was the clever “What Time Is It in Gstaad?” Having sunk to the very bottom, he had retained very little of his dignity, but still clung to his expensive chronometer, the last bastion of his former affluence. Should he consider pawning the ornament? But no, he sang. Then he would never know what was the time in that fabled Swiss ski resort. It’s then when another chance encounter with Billie Rae sent him angrily spiraling even further down. He elected to pawn the watch in a pathetic attempt at revenge by framing Billie Rae and thus making complete the resolution of the Dukes’ bet.
It also led to Billie Rae learning who had actually been behind her meteoric rise and Winthrop’s rapid descent. Together, Louis and Billie Rae came to the dramatic conclusion of what truly matters in life: getting even with the Dukes! Act II’s opener “Kill the Dukes” stated that with purpose.
When the two Duke brothers, Mortimer (Marc Kudisch) and Randolph (Lenny Wolfe) hatched their bet via song, it was to decide which is more important: “Nature vs. Nurture.” Kudisch, a three-time Tony nominated actor, is the stronger of the two Broadway veterans and he absolutely sizzles in later scenes with Michael Longoria, who played another new character written into the book, Phil Lopez. Longoria’s cross-dressing alter ego of Phil is Ophelia and she took on some of the street-wise characteristics of the Jamie Leigh Curtis streetwalker role from the original movie.
Longoria, who played Frankie Valli on Broadway in Jersey Boys, was a wonderful addition to the cast, singing his signature song “Abre Tus Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes”) and proving himself an agile and scintillating dancer. He and Kudisch share time together during a critical part of Billie Rae and Louis’ scheme for exacting revenge on the Duke brothers when “Abre Tus Ojos” is reprised.
The other standout in the cast was Josh Lamon, who broke the fourth wall on several occasions and proved to be every bit the dancer and singer of other cast members. As Mr. Beeks, the henchman whom the Dukes employ to get insider information and to frame Winthrop, he was a showstopper and scene stealer. In “You Got Beeksed,” a hilarious number with as many as ten ensemble members in support, he slithered across the stage and into the audience.
As the originator of the role of Beeks, Lamon demonstrated he had learned his comic craft well from previous Broadway outings in which he was featured like The Prom and Groundhog Day. He joins with the Duke brothers in a memorable homage to greed in “More is More.” Together with Leon as his director, Lamon perfected an unlikely character that might well merit a top performing award nomination once the show bows on Broadway.
With only six named characters and an ensemble of ten plus swings, this was a relatively small show, but boasted high production values. Tony Award winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt was a brilliant addition to the creative team. To emphasize the sharp division between the haves and have nots of Philadelphia, he chose to design the left side of the stage with expensive high rises and the familiar outline of the statue of William Penn that sits above the former City Hall there. On the right side were subtle references to dilapidated housing and blighted properties. Boritt used the images of former U.S. presidents and other infamous leaders who were problematic in many ways (such as being slave owners or whose racist policies against Native Americans are well-known today) to adorn the rear wall of the Heritage Club. It’s telling to see photos of other famous or infamous Americans like J. Edgar Hoover as well.
Act Two contained one of the cleverest scene changes that took the action onto a moving train. Titled “The Briefcase Ballet,” it was accomplished with the precise timing of the actors, truly inventive choreography by Fatima Robinson, the remarkable sound design of John Shivers and the superb lighting by designer Adam Honoré. Boritt’s set design left everyone in the audience with broad smiles at the scene’s end.
Costumes by Emilio Sosa were terrifically rendered with ensemble members usually draped in black to highlight the actions of the leading and featured performers. Sosa, who is the current chair of the American Theatre Wing, made his bones working with hip-hop and popular artists before setting his sights on Broadway where he’s been outfitting luminaries for some time. An Academy Award winner for Best Hair and Makeup (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), Mia Neal rendered the outstanding hair and wig designs that went hand in glove with Sosa’s designs.
By the time Folds sang Billie Rae’s eleventh hour song “Not Anymore,” the music and lyrics by Zachary and Weiner had firmly taken root, orchestrated by August Eriksmoen. As music supervisor, Rick Edinger was in the pit on keyboards conducting the other 12 musicians with authority and with fantastic results.
One of the funniest numbers in the production was when Billie Rae found herself in Winthrop’s apartment for the first time. There are a number of f-bombs dropped in “I Don’t Know (What the F*** Is Going On)” as evinced by the title. Parents are warned, but even the song acknowledges the overuse of the expletive, which is not deleted, and it’s absolutely hysterical.
By the time the curtain rang down on Trading Places: The Musical, it was clearly evident Kenny Leon had made a triumphant return to both the Alliance and to his hometown of Atlanta. The only thing remaining to be seen is when this production finds a Broadway theater with which it can trade places. When it does, “Looking Good. Feeling Good” will be the new catchphrase there.
Based on Paramount Pictures film “Trading Places,” written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, Trading Places: The Musical (2 hours 30 minutes with 15 minute intermission) ran at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta from May 25 to June 25, 2022. It was produced by special arrangement with Marc Madnick and Michael Cassel Group.
Aneesa Folds Billie Rae Valentine
Marc Kudisch Mortimer Duke
McKenzie Kurtz Penelope Van Verst
Josh Lamon Mr. Beeks
Michael Longoria Phil Lopez
Bryce Pinkham Louis Winthrop, III
Don Stephenson Coleman
Lenny Wolpe Randolph Duke
Jimmy Ray Bennett Ensemble
Dana Costello Ensemble
Kayla Marie Cruz Ensemble
Julia Grondin Swing
Benjamin Howes Ensemble
Raymond J. Lee Ensemble
James Luc Ensemble
Malaiyka Reid Ensemble
Xavier Reyes Ensemble
Jacob Roberts-Miller Swing
Michael McCorry Rose Ensemble
Nyla Watson Ensemble
Kevin Zak Swing
Director Kenny Leon
Book Thomas Lennon
Music and lyrics Michael Weiner
Music and lyrics Alan Zachary
Choreographer Fatima Robinson
Scenic Design Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design Adam Honoré
Sound Design John Shivers
Hair & Wig Design Mia Neal
Orchestrations August Eriksmoen
Music Supervisor Rick Edinger
Fight Choreography Rick Sordelet
Associate Music Dir. Emily Whitaker
Associate Director Tinashe Kajese-Bolden
Assoc. Choreographer Jeremy Green
Assoc. Choreographer Adrian Wiltshire
Casting The Telsey Office
Casting Patrick Goodwin, CSA
Casting Jody Feldman
Production Stage Mgr. Ralph Stan Lee