KPBS AIRDATE: August 30, 1995
There’s an ocean of anniversaries at the Old Globe Theatre, so they’ve launched a celebrational nostalgia ship. The theatre is 60, director Craig Noel just turned 80 and this is his 220th show at the Globe; it’s 50 years since the end of World War II, and 43 years since Noel saved the Globe from bankruptcy with a sellout production of “Mister Roberts.” What better way to mark these landmark events than to float “Mister Roberts” again. It’s been a long journey for the Lieutenant and his crew.
Their story, about a Navy cargo ship blazing under the Pacific sun along the forgotten seaways of WW II, began as a novel by Thomas Heggen. With acclaimed director Joshua Logan, Heggen reframed the piece into a long-running, Tony Award-winning 1948 Broadway play, but he died a year after its opening. The author never got to see the enormously popular 1955 movie, where Henry Fonda, reprising his star turn on Broadway, was joined by James Cagney as the tyrannical Captain, young Jack Lemmon, in his first Oscar-winning role as the unforgettable Ensign Pulver, and William Powell, in his final film appearance, as the world-weary medical officer, Doc.
That has always been a hard act to follow, but so is Noel’s 1953 Globe production, which starred Henry Zieba, a Navy flier stationed at North Island, who, according to the director, looked, sounded and acted just like Henry Fonda.
Almost a half-century later, Noel’s cast, once again, closely resembles their memorable filmic predecessors. In fact, the look and feel of the whole production are very much like the movie. And once again, Noel has placed local Navy personnel in supporting roles. One retired Navy man, high school drama teacher Jack Winans, was even in Noel’s original production here.
So reminiscence reigns. Even in the title character, played by Robert Hays, who went to Grossmont College and did several shows at the Globe. He’s kind of slow-moving and slow talking just like the late Fonda, and he brings a calm, quiet dignity to the guy who heroically battles the war’s greatest enemy — boredom. His onstage foils — the blustery Captain, the frenetic Ensign, the wise doctor — are good but not stellar.
The whole proceedings get off to a very drowsy start, but the pace picks up in the second act, though it never really crackles with drama and humor. But we do get swept into the patriotism and appreciation of unsung heroes. Noel is reverential about the material. He hasn’t tried to jazz it up or change the time or place or emotional context. But, with magnificent, evocative set, sound and lighting, and with the Zoo’s seals barking in the background, we are transported.
…Brief postscript: Tonight’s the last performance of the latest national touring production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” It trips over its own glitz, and has the longest curtain calls in the country: you get to hear a reprise of every single song. Cute gimmick to have 40 local kids onstage, but they really don’t add a great deal. It’s all much ado about nothing. The singing is good, but the really best part is lead Sam Harris’ body, which is given extreme exposure: he could play a tune for me on those washboard abs any day. If you love Lloyd Webber and Las Vegas, don’t miss it.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.