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The Allure of a 'Broadway Jukebox'

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PHOENIX — Dinner theatre producers — and actors who love musicals and steady paychecks — should take note: Arizona's Copperstate Dinner Theater has devised a show to satisfy everyone's taste. Broadway Jukebox, running through Sept. 3, features an ensemble of three men and three women, who must first learn some 125 show tunes from the early 1900s to the present — a selection diverse enough to include "Whatever Lola Wants," "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," "One Day More!," "Ol' Man River," and "I Don't Know How to Love Him," plus songs from shows like Pippin, Rent, Aspects of Love, and Smokey Joe's Café to keep things eclectic. Then each audience member chooses three songs from the list, with the most popular choices making up the evening's score.

It may sound kitschy or difficult to pull off, but Broadway Jukebox is certainly an innovative concept. For example, the audience might choose "Ol' Man River" — a straightforward song that can stand on its own — yet pair it with the overture to Gypsy, for which the six performers become the orchestra and hilariously "play" themselves through the piece. There's even a send-up of the overplayed "Tomorrow."

What makes the show unique is that it's crafted by the audience. "The greatest challenge is really assembling the show backstage," says Peter J. Hill, Copperstate's producing director. "We tally the selections and create the revue. This obviously is the whole secret of the show — how to make this all happen quickly, set a dramatic build, and keep the performers from stumbling all over each other on- and offstage." If you can imagine a production that's different each night for each performer, you can imagine the challenge of Broadway Jukebox. On the other hand, Hill says, the format means that actors don't burn out, the audience has a reason to return night after night, and the producers save on costumes and sets — Copperstate has created a giant jukebox set out of the colorful floaties used in pools.

But no one should get the idea that Broadway Jukebox is merely tossed off. Says Hill, "The greatest amount of backstage time is taken up going through 'the bible' — the book containing the sheet music for the entire jukebox — removing the selected songs, and putting them into 'the new testament,' the book used onstage by the accompanist." That's why, he says, the show really lives or dies with the talent and temperament of its accompanist.

Another element of the show is the stump-the-cast contest. Midway through the second act, the audience is invited to name a musical that ran for more than 500 performances between 1900 and today — in other words, a hit — from which a cast member must sing a song. "There are certain tricks we've learned on how to make this thing work," Hill explains, "including dividing all hit shows by decades, so each actor specializes in knowing the songs from only one or two decades." The winner (if there is one) receives a small bottle of champagne.

What kind of performer can succeed in a show like this? "The single greatest asset they can have, aside from great voices, is a lack of ego," Hill says. "Since the audience picks the tunes, some nights a performer may have no featured moment. It can be a little hard on the ego, but once they realize that they get paid the same whether they solo or not, most get over it."

Broadway Jukebox runs through Sept. 3 at Copperstate Dinner Theater at Phoenix Greyhound Park, 3801 E. Washington St., Phoenix. Tickets: (602) 279-3129. Website: www.copperstatedinnertheaters.com.

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