By Pat Launer
A tap-dance musical and an English drama sendup;
The girl gets the guy – that’s how they both end up.
Comedy depends not on laughter non-stop
But on not being too too far over-the-top.
On ‘ 42nd Street ’ or on a ‘Cold Comfort Farm,’
Overplaying your hand sounds a false-note alarm.
As the director tells the wannabe star, “the two most glorious words in the English language [are] musical theater.” “ 42nd Street ” makes you believe it. This 1980 musical, a dance-lover’s dream, recreates the classic 1933 backstage movie musical of the same name. The show followed its cliché-riddled model with a minimum of camp but a maximum of high-octane dancing. The original was directed and choreographed by the legendary Gower Champion (who died the day the musical opened on Broadway). A featured dancer in that blockbuster show was Jon Engstrom , who later became the dance captain, and has spent the last 25 years re-creating the beloved show on stages around the country and in Europe (It wasn’t his only show, btw; he appeared in four other Bway musicals and two national tours). So he comes to the Welk Resort Theatre well equipped and well prepared. And his experience shows. The production is simply terrific. The choreography is inventive and unpredictable, and extremely well executed by a bevy of serious hoofers and tappers . It’s a delight to watch them effortlessly enliven tuneful tunes like the title song, as well as “Lullaby of Broadway,” “Go Into Your Dance,” “We’re in the Money,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me.” Great stuff. Wonderfully sung, too The cast of nearly two dozen is outstanding.
Rich- and full-voiced Erika Amato is excellent as the egocentric diva du jour, the star of the Broadway musical who falls, breaks her ankle and is incapacitated just before the opening (Christina Applegate, anyone?? That’s her story from this year’s “Sweet Charity”). Adorable SDSU-MFA musical theater student Nicole Werner has just the right ingenuous perkiness for Peggy Sawyer, the ingénue from Allentown , PA , who steps into the lead role and becomes an overnight star, fulfilling every theater fantasy that ever was. (Can you spell Sutton Foster? That’s HER story from “Thoroughly Modern Millie”). These recent, real-life events make the show seem a lot less improbable.
Bouncy, bountiful Katie Wilson is a hoot as Maggie Jones, the funny/acerbic writer who teams up with Andy Lee, delightfully played by much-missed San Diego native Jamie Torcellini , a natural comic and crackerjack dancer. As the director/choreographer Julian Marsh (the role played by the late-great Jerry Orbach ), Andrew Husmann , who made for a hunky Frank Butler in the Welk’s 2003 production of “Annie Get Your Gun” (a role he understudied on the national tour, standing by for Tom Wopat), is equally imposing dramatically, but somewhat less commanding vocally this go-round. Jacob ben Widmar plays the innocently amorous tenor-voiced romantic lead, and Kathryn Venverloh , recently convincing in dramatic and comic roles ( Mo’olelo’s “Remains” and North Coast Rep’s “A Thousand Clowns”), shows off her song-and-dance prowess as wisecracking chorine Anytime Annie.
The colorful, ever-changing costumes were rented by the Welk from the Theatre Company in Upland , CA. , but the sets (designed by Andrew Hammer) were created for this production. They capture the backstage feel in the early scenes, and really light up like the Great White Way (neon rules!) at the end.
If you haven’t been to the Welk in some time, this is the one to watch. A delicious treat from start to finish. Toe-tapping optional, but unavoidable.
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
HOW YA GONNA KEEP ‘EM DOWN ON THE FARM?
In this culture of reruns and knockoffs, sequels, prequels, multiple incarnations and adaptations, some things are better left in their original state. I could, of course, list a zillion movies that were great as they were and didn’t need an update or remake. Or novels that were far better than any film made from them. Now comes a play with the same questionable pedigree. The classic comic English novel, “Cold Comfort Farm,” was written in 1932 by young journalist Stella Gibbons. It mocked the dank, grim rural novels that preceded it. Gibbons’ original title was, in fact, “Curse God Farm,” until her friend (Elizabeth Coxhead , later a novelist in her own right) suggested Cold Comfort, the name of a real farm in the English Midlands where, she said, “tenant after tenant has gone bankrupt.” “Nature always goes one better than art,” said Stella, and enthusiastically took her friend’s suggestion. The book was an immediate success, parodying the Hardy-type rustics and their doom-laden struggle against impossible odds in the country. Gibbons even created mock-rural words (a forerunner of Martin McDonough), such as “ scanlet ” and “hoot piece,” “ mollocking ” and “ sukebind .” Gibbons borrowed some of the stereotypical characters of the rural novel — the tyrannical matriarch, the religious bigot, the mystic simpleton, the farmyard Don Juan – and gave them new life, by revealing unexpected sides to their characters.
Her story tells of Flora Poste , a smart, sophisticated young woman from London (kind of like Stella herself) who, newly orphaned, goes to live with some strange Sussex relations that she has never met or seen before. These are the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, a weird, loopy, scruffy clan, and Flora sets out to tidy up their very untidy lives.
So playwright Paul Doust felt the book needed a dramatic adaptation. And maybe that’s not so bad after all, since it sticks fairly close to Gibbons’ satiric intentions and prolix, parodistic language. What really doesn’t work is the Lamb’s Players production of the piece.
By allowing his cast – a formidable assemblage – to take their characters so far over the top they’re more annoying than amusing, director Robert Smyth loses the heart and soul of the book. Everyone seems to be spinning nearly out of control in Act One, when we meet the Starkadder kin. KB Mercer, as the mad matriarch, Ada Doom, seems to be competing with her real-life husband Doren Elias, who plays a Hollywood producer, Mr. Neck, and a grungy farmhand, Adam Lambbreath , for the Screaming/Shouting/Shrieking award of the year. Season Duffy plays the lovesick, jump-in-the-well Rennet like Cousin It from The Addams Family. Chris Bresky’s Urk is sort of subhuman, too, but he cleans up well in the second act as an upper-crust bachelor. Deborah Gilmour Smyth comes alive in the second act as well, as Bresky’s prissy, purse-lipped mother. Chrissy Reynolds- Vogele is an escapee from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the elfin Elfine , but she looks lovely, and far more restrained when she’s rinsed off to meet her mate. And so it goes… too too much in the first act gives way to a little moderation in the second, which is a blessing after the early pummeling that drains the story of its humor and endurability . Did I mention that the production runs nearly three hours?? Yes, well. On the heels of the beautiful and finely nuanced “Metamorphoses,” this is certainly a change of pace, but not a welcome one. The most consistent performances were by Matt Thompson, as a dashing aviator and the handsome, starry-eyed, film-obsessed Starkadder , Seth. And at the center of it all, a stable force in the midst of the maelstrom, is charming Sarah Zimmerman as Flora.
One of the most satisfying entertainments of the evening is watching the set-change, from the meticulously grungy cottage (designed by Mike Buckley), to the less-detailed garden of privilege, highlighted by a romantic, winding staircase. Jeanne Reith’s costumes aptly capture the grime and the elegance, and Nate Parde shines light on the shenanigans. But, really, why this? Why now? And why us?
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through July 17.
SONGS OF HISTORY
Getta load o’ this! In a Brooklyn Intermediate School , a social studies teacher is using musical theater to underscore (pun intended) the past. Kids can learn American history by singing along. Harold Small has used “Big River” (based on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”) to teach about slavery and the pre-Civil War period and “1776” to study the Constitution and the American Revolution. “Paint Your Wagon” relates to the Gold Rush, “ Fiorello !” concerns the labor movement and “Annie” is set in the Great Depression. “West Side Story” tells a bit about postwar immigration; racism, segregation and World War II feature prominently in “South Pacific.” “ Oklahoma !” focuses on Westward expansion and “Show Boat” is about Reconstruction. It’s all part of the American Musicals Project, sponsored by the New York Historical (Hysterical?) Society. This approach kills several birds with one stone; it brings arts into the classroom, introduces students to musical theater (thereby, hopefully, developing new audiences) and it makes the learning of history a lot more memorable and melodic. Sing out, Louise – there’s gonna be a quiz!
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – just about flawless; director Sean Murray does it again! Gorgeously designed, directed and acted. A too-rarely-seen classic brought to magnificent life!
At Cygnet Theatre, through July 10.
“ 42nd Street ” – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
“Amy’s View” – beautifully acted ensemble piece featuring a magnificent performance by Rosina Reynolds as Amy’s mom. A touching, talky, sometimes funny play in a delightful production that shouldn’t be missed.
At North Coast RepertoryTheatre , through July 3.
“Bronze” – a world premiere by Sledge regular Ruff Yeager, which he also directs with wit and flair. The acting is excellent, and the play is provocative – about celebrity, parental expectation and individual/communal humiliation.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 3
“Lobby Hero” – tense and intense, and often quite funny, this thought-provoking modern morality play is getting a superb production, under the assured direction of Kirsten Brandt.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 26.
“Late Nite Catechism” – ‘class,’ whether Catholic or secular, with or without ruler-whacking, was never this hilarious. Three alternating ‘Sisters’ explain it all and interact with the audience. Be careful what you wear, say or do. Sister is watching.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday and Tuesday nights, extended through June 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Okay, it’s nearly July…. What are you waiting for? Fill up your summer calendar – with theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.