KPBS AIRDATE: June 24, 2005
Your weekend entertainment options are numerous. If you’re torn between the appeal of a movie and the attraction of live theater, now you can have both at the same time. Well, sort of. “Palm Beach, the Screwball Musical,” is a modern sendup of all those screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s that were made to help people forget about the war and the Great Depression. Films like “It Happened One Night,” “Bringing up Baby” and “The Palm Beach Story.” This world premiere is a musical, but it feels like a movie. There are projected ads before the show begins, and admonishments to the audience, like ‘Please Refrain from Partisan Applause.’ The play title is scrawled, letter by letter, across the screen in traditional script. The action starts in black and white and then bursts into vibrant color. The scenery spins past on turntables, shifting, like the gorgeous costumes, with every scene. There are chases and quick changes. And at the end, the View closes down like a camera iris. All that’s missing is the popcorn.
The convoluted plot, with its class distinctions, complications and revelations, is a no-holds-barred update on the films that were so constrained by the censoring Hays Code of Conduct that they had to sublimate sexual ardor with verbal sparring. A jilted chorus girl escapes from New York and her two-timing boyfriend, running away to wealthy Palm Beach in search of a richer guy. She falls into the fabulously affluent Fitch Family, and all hell breaks loose. In addition to the surprise paternity of several characters, book writers Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman also throw in surprise sexuality. By the finale, the gold-diggers return to their designated place in society, and the insufferable Fitches, a decidedly nasty and dysfunctional bunch, get some comeuppance.
David Gursky’s score is so reverential and referential, of both Hollywood and Broadway melodies, that it sounds completely derivative. The lyrics, by Robert Cary, are often quite clever, but so contemporary it sometimes feels like a stylistic mismatch. And a 4-piece pit band seems meager for such a lush, glitzy production.
At the La Jolla Playhouse, Des McAnuff’s crisp direction and Debbie Roshe’s inventive choreography keep the scenery and actors in constant motion, which isn’t always a plus. The cast, which happily includes a couple of local actors, is uniformly excellent, even if they’re stuck playing stock characters or caricatures. It’s a tight ensemble, but there’s one real dancing, singing, comic standout: Amanda Watkins as Victoria Fitch, a whiney, earnest, hypochondriacal poet with an ever-ready inhaler.
It’s screwy all right, and silly, witty, sometimes nasty, often ridiculous. But what, ultimately, is the point? It’s just froth. The retro feel clashes with the high-tech production and the collision leaves you cold.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.