Let’s talk TV. In case you hadn’t heard, reboots are the latest nostalgic trend taking pop culture by storm. In fact, a resurrected “Twin Peaks” is currently spooking Showtime, the Disney Channel repackages “That’s So Raven” as “Raven’s Home” next month, deliciously glamourous “Dynasty” will be rebranded for a new generation this fall on the CW, and plans are ongoing for Emmy Award-winning “Roseanne” to return next year to ABC or Netflix. At a time when investing in the untested comes with sizable risk, it is apparent producers are more willing to embrace tried and true projects, particularly derived from titles engrained in the psyche for decades.
One of those ready-made titles hoping to make big theatrical waves in the future is “Family Ties,” the popular sitcom (1982-1989) concerning the lovable and intellectual Keaton family from Columbus, Ohio. Starring Michael J. Fox, who won three Emmys for his portrayal of Alex P. Keaton, the show, created by Gary David Goldberg, brought relatable wholesomeness and humor to the table with entertaining political and cultural bite. Whenever he wasn’t perturbing his sisters Mallory and Jennifer, conservative Alex enjoyed a battle of wills with his ex-hippie, liberal parents Steven and Elyse. But at the end of the day, their bond always remained heartwarmingly intact.
“Family Ties” is the most recent TV property (now in the hands of CBS) being translated to the stage following a laundry list of classics such as “Cheers,” “Happy Days” and “I Love Lucy” among others. It has received a world premiere courtesy of the Human Race Theatre Company at the Loft Theatre produced by special arrangement with Araca Media & Entertainment. Written by Daniel Goldstein, who helmed an exhilarating and underrated 2011 Broadway revival of “Godspell,” the one-act play borrows certain episodes from the series (most notably “The Real Thing” in which Alex meets his future girlfriend Ellen Reed) as the foundation to tell a fresh story of reunion, forgiveness and heartbreak. Set 20 years later at the Keaton residence circa 2008 (minus little brother Andy Keaton serving overseas in the Peace Corps), the tale centers on Alex’s homecoming detailing exciting news of a run for Congress as well as the announcement he’ll soon be a father. However, laughter and reminiscing ultimately gives way to tragedy, a pivotal component Goldstein doesn’t have a tight grip on. Alex’s arrival contains a great deal of odd insensitivity which seems illogical considering the play’s trajectory toward bereavement. In turn, a series of flashbacks doesn’t necessarily help set the proper groundwork for the play’s plot twist, leaving portions of the dizzying action confusing and perplexing. In many respects, Goldstein wants “Family Ties” to feel emotionally akin to “Next to Normal,” another tale of close-knit family dynamics and underlying sorrow, but it’s a precarious notion. After all, no one wants to feel cheated by conceptual trickery so a better grasp of how this show navigates its time traveling structure is imperative.
Nevertheless, director Kevin Moore, fluidly helming with an excellent awareness of sitcom sensibilities, assembles an enjoyably cohesive sextet paying fine homage to the essence of their familiar characters. Immensely charming Jim Stanek (who gave a definitive rendition of “Love, I Hear” as Hero in the 1996 Tony Award-nominated revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) is a thoroughly engaging focal point as Alex, particularly embodying Fox’s quirky persona with energetic glee (notice the way he bounces atop the kitchen counter in true Fox fashion). As Elyse, sitcom icon Eve Plumb, the unforgettable Jan Brady of “The Brady Bunch,” skillfully interprets the speech patterns and tenderly authoritative spirit of Meredith Baxter-Birney while offering a solidly endearing portrayal all her own. One of Plumb’s finest dramatic moments occurs opposite Stanek in flashback when Elyse and Alex debate Alex’s decision to celebrate his 18th birthday with his buddies in West Virginia, a firm reminder of the importance of checks and balances between parents and children. Lawrence Redmond lovingly conveys sincerity and gentleness as Steven and is especially strong in a scene detailing how Steven’s views of fatherhood were affected by his emotionally detached dad. Thea Brooks (whiny Mallory) and Sara Mackie (lively Jennifer) establish an appealing sisterhood. Maggie Lou Rader, mesmerizing in three flashbacks opposite Stanek at his most charismatic, truly delights as Ellen, Alex’s eventual wife.
In addition, set designer Tamara L. Honesty impeccably recreates the Keaton home from the stained glass front door to the linoleum kitchen floor. Janet G. Powell’s contemporary and period attire admirably accent the play’s tone despite the script unfortunately not allowing many costume changes. John Rensel’s lighting design and Jay Brunner’s sound design are expertly rendered, particularly Brunner marvelously turning back the hands of time with radio-inspired finesse. The production also effectively incorporates “Without Us,” the beautifully melodic “Family Ties” theme song, and Billy Vera and The Beaters’ romantic ballad “At This Moment.”
Personally, I’d be head over heels if someone decided to dramatize “Little House on the Prairie,” “Felicity,” “Sex and the City” or “Downton Abbey” to name only a few. So, if you’re a longtime fan of “Family Ties,” I totally understand why you would want to take advantage of catching up with characters who feel like old friends. Just be aware the play is in need of a hiatus in order to determine a clearer, more focused path on the road to substantively fulfilling resonance.
“Family Ties” continues through June 25 at the Loft Theatre of the Metropolitan Arts Center, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. The production is performed in 80 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $12-$40. There are discounts for select side-area seats available for $12 and $25 for all performances. For group sales, contact Betty Gould at (937) 461-8295 or e-mail [email protected]. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org or ticketcenterstage.com. In addition, there will be a post-show talk-back following the Sunday, June 11 performance.