‘Stop the World’ still holds up after all these years

Back in the 1960s, “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” was my favorite musical. Almost every night I would listen to it on record (remember records?), and I was lucky enough to see a great performance of it. It always seemed strange to me that many audience members would walk out during the performance, because I thought the show was brilliant, but I did recognize that it was different than other musicals. So when I heard that “Stop the World” would be presented this year at SUNY Fredonia, I was excited, but I also wondered whether the show would hold up. Would I still think it was as brilliant as I had thought many years ago?

I do! I do! Of course, it does not seem as revolutionary as it did in the ’60s, largely because it influenced the development of subsequent musicals. Written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the show presents the highly stylized and yet startlingly realistic story of the life of Littlechap, a twentieth-century Everyman. But while the show has universal aspects, it is also full of satirical 1960s references. I wondered whether director Tom Loughlin would keep those references or would update them, as is sometimes done. He chose to keep them, and they still work surprisingly well. (I must confess, though, that at the preview, I was the only person old enough to get them all. Before you go, look up “Butterfield 8.”)

So don’t go the theatre expecting a Rogers and Hammerstein evening. Just go. The show is edgy, funny, and touching. The political satire is still spot on (the song version of a political speech is called “Mumbo Jumbo”), and the show contains some songs that are still well known (“Gonna Build a Mountain,” for instance, and particularly “What Kind of Fool Am I?”).

The production itself is outstanding, from lighting to costumes to circus-tent setting. But ultimately, what makes the show are the performances by the student cast. Steve Russell does a virtuous job in the difficult and demanding role of Littlechap. The show lasts just over two and a half hours, and Littlechap is on stage virtually the whole time, talking and singing most of that time. While it is impossible to forget Anthony Newley as Littlechap, Mr. Russell does make the role his own.

In the original version of the show, the female lead played several roles. In this production, those roles are played by individual actresses, all of whom do outstanding work: Danielle Izzo as Evie, Shannon Cunningham as Anya, Rhiannon LaCross as Ilse, and Adelia Gueli as Ginnie. Vaughn Butler and Theresa Egloff are wonderful as the daughters. BJ Hylton does well in the largely non-speaking role of Bruce, though he makes an alarming sound as a factory whistle. And all of them, with the addition of Ryan Glynn and Raphael Santos, operate as an efficient and entertaining chorus.

Before the show begins, the audience is entertained by a mock circus. It’s worth arriving early at the theatre, both to get a parking spot and to see this entertainment. My only reservation about the show was that the orchestra was somewhat out of tune and uncoordinated, mostly in the first half. Maybe it was nerves.

At any rate, this is a show that is worth seeing. “Stop the World” is not performed nearly as often as it should be, so grab this opportunity. You won’t be sorry. The show is performed in the Alice E. Bartlett Theatre on the Fredonia State Theatre, with performances on March 8-10 and March 14-16.

Theodore L. Steinberg is with the Department of English at SUNY Fredonia.