KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 10, 2000
Life was so much simpler 50 years ago. We were wide-eyed and innocent… and so was the theater. Now, two middle-aged classics have returned to San Diego stages, and though they may have a few wrinkles, they’re not totally over the hill. You might say the hills are alive in “The Sound of Music,” and the laughs still live in “Born Yesterday.”
Exactly one year ago, almost to the day, Garson Kanin, the playwright-director of “Born Yesterday,” went to that great stage in the sky. But he will be remembered for creating the quirky comedy that preaches civic duty and democracy while it portrays a Washington where senators can be bought and sold. And where dumb blondes can smarten up right-quick, just in time to give the gate to their abusive, macho mates. You wouldn’t expect a quasi-feminist twist in a 1946 comedy, but… there it is.
Onstage and onscreen, Judy Holliday immortalized Billie Dawn, the ditsy chorine, mindless moll of the lunkhead, strong-arm scrap-metal millionaire Harry Brock, who comes to the capitol to buy him a congressman. No debutante himself, Harry thinks that Billie isn’t refined enough for high society, so he hires a muckraking reporter to teach her some culture and class. Billie’s newfound knowledge turns out to be empowering and incendiary.
At the Moonlight Amphitheatre, these colorful characters come alive again, in a fast-paced, sure-handed production directed by Kathy Brombacher. Erin K. Granahan is downright uproarious as Billie — insouciant, independent, irresistible. Michael Grant Hall makes Harry a menacing Mafioso, with Jeff Wayne a hoot as his henchman, and Jim Strait compelling as a drunk but clear-eyed lawyer. The 14-member cast converges in stunning surroundings… Marty Burnett’s elegantly gilded hotel room, lit in a golden glow by Karin Filijan, with additional sparkle from Roslyn Lehman’s perfect period costumes. Despite its title, maybe the play wasn’t born yesterday, but Brombacher’s snappy production dusts it off and gives it timely shine.
Broadway director Susan Schulman also set out to burnish an old chestnut. She made “The Sound of Music” sing again, and now her acclaimed revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s treacly 1959 blockbuster has taken to the road, in a touring production starring Richard Chamberlain. Usually, top billing goes to the female lead, that petulant postulant Maria, who gets sent from the convent to be a governess to the von Trapp family, seven children and their brooding father. But here, the big name goes to the small role.
Chamberlain has a mellow and mellifluous voice, but he isn’t much of a singer, and he fails to convince in his supposed transition from gruff autocrat to warm-hearted husband. Meg Tolin plays spritely Maria like Peter Pan, a perky, tomboyish blonde, flitting all over the stage. There’s a bit of Mary Poppins here, too, but alas, no musical trace of Julie Andrews; Tolin is engaging but not show-stopping.
Throughout the huge ensemble, the focus is on the singing, with little allowance for emotional tonality. But the songs still sound good, the kids are predictably cute, and the nuns harmonize magnificently. Schulman has expanded the sisters’ presence, and also underscored the hideous Nazi infestation of prewar Austria, which adds a bit more realism to the fact-based story. This production has more heat than heart, but familiar and seductive as the music is, you may, just like everyone onstage, feel compelled to burst into song.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.