Theater review: Kenny Leon returns with ‘Trading Places,’ and the news is not good

Kenny Leon is a titan of the cultural landscape, so when the Tony Award-winning director returns to his old home base at the Alliance Theatre, one pays attention.

“Trading Places: The Musical,” which closes the Alliance’s mainstage season, would appear to be such an occasion.

Directed by the theater’s former artistic director, and featuring a top-drawer roster of Broadway performers and designers, “Trading Places” takes some liberties with the plot and characters of the 1983 Hollywood film starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. The crudely written Hollywood comedy was itself a critique of the systemic racism and wealth disparity that plagues the nation. Now Leon and his team — notably composer-lyricists Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner, and book writer Thomas Lennon — introduce gender politics.

The Murphy character — Billy Ray Valentine, a poor Black street hustler who practices his shenanigans outside the door of a Philadelphia commodities brokerage run by a pair of greedy, arrogant brothers — is now Billie Rae Valentine (the terrific Aneesa Folds).

Credit: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney

Ophelia, the hooker with the heart of gold (played by Curtis in the film), is now Phil (Michael Longoria), a swishy Puerto Rican drag queen who takes in Louis Winthorpe III (Bryce Pinkham). Louis is a snobby Ivy League type who, along with Valentine, is ensnared in a twisted scheme devised by siblings Mortimer and Randolph Duke (Marc Kudisch and Lenny Wolpe) to test their theories of social hierarchy (”Nature vs. Nurture”). The mysterious Mr. Beeks (Josh Lamon) has been has been transformed from an uptight Duke family operative into an over-the-top clown, prone to loopy vocal shenanigans and other strange behaviors.

None of this is nearly confusing as it may sound, though “Trading Places” is nothing if not a head-scratcher.

To be certain, the caliber of the performances is mostly excellent. Folds is a powerhouse belter and a natural comedian, a joy to watch. Pinkham (perhaps best known for playing the titular role in Broadway’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder”) is appropriately handsome and charismatic when we first meet him, then disheveled and marginalized when he loses his job, his car, his home and his girlfriend, Penelope (the wonderful McKenzie Kurtz, an Atlanta native).

The design team of Beowulf Boritt (scenery), Emilio Sosa (costumes) and Adam Honore (lighting) creates spectacular, Broadway-caliber work that pleases the eye and propels the story — from the posh Legacy Club where villains plot beneath gilded portraits of our slave-owning Founding Fathers and other problematic historical figures (looking at you, J. Edgar Hoover) to a pivotal train scene worthy of an Agatha Christie whodunit (”Briefcase Ballet”).

And this being a musical, let’s not dismiss the work of Zachary and Weiner, who concoct memorable songs to go with bonkers material.

The ensemble number “I Don’t Know What (The [expletive] Is Going On)” is not only great fun; it’s also an adequate description of my response to this show, which attempts to shine new light on source material that was already pretty wretched and offensive to being with. (If you don’t believe me, stream the movie.)

“Trading Places: The Musical,” despite the lofty achievements of nearly everyone it employs, is a jarring hodgepodge of a show with a creepy tone. The decision to reimagine a woman of the streets as a drag queen is especially troubling — mainly because it unpacks innumerable stereotypes. A lispy cross-dresser from Puerto Rico — are we insulted yet? The switch-up also upsets the time-honored device of tying the package up in a sweet romantic bow.

Long before COVID-19, theater was a fragile art form. That it has pushed through hard times to tell the world it won’t go away is remarkable, and it causes me great personal discomfort to drag a well-meaning effort. With “Trading Places,” the Alliance has produced a musical that displays its strengths (a world-class backstage team of costume makers, set builders and technicians) and its weaknesses (the lure of producing glitzy commercial material). “Trading Places” adds on layers — but fails to offer clarification, or insight.

Leon’s homecoming simply doesn’t meet expectations.


THEATER REVIEW

“Trading Places: The Musical”

7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays. 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through June 26. $25-$93. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org

Bottom line: We’ll pass, thanks