Musical Comedy!

By Philip PeLaynearce

SHE’S WON PRAISE nationally and abroad, but we locals still insist Layne Littlepage is our own home-grown phenomenon. She was spot-on hilarious in her one-woman performances as Beatrice Lillie. She effortlessly stole the show as a New Age Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s High Spirits at MPC. The good news is she’s back with an hour of hi-jinx and vocal magic at the Carl Cherry Center.

With its classy new auditorium paint job, the Cherry is a perfect fit for Littlepage’s distinctive brand of intimate comedy and music. It’s a setting that creates an evening that’s half cabaret and half informal fun and games in your own Carmel living room.

The lady is there to remind us that, before the heavy-breathing soul-searches of Les Miz or the blood-stained melodramatics of Sweeney Todd, an all-singin’ all dancin’ Broadway show was, like Littlepage’s latest offering, something called “Musical Comedy!” And the “message,” if it has one, is Don’t Leave Off the Laughs or Forget the Exclamation Point.

In a voice that seems to grow more flexible and true with every passing year she runs the vocal gamut from the painful arpeggios of an over-ambitious soprano in “I Want to Sing in Opera” to the whiny pleas of Charles Schulz’s Lucy trying to lure Schroeder into matrimony and away from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

There’s an Irving Berlin number extolling the glories of 88 keys worth of piano. There’s a Cole Porter tribute to an East Coast Oyster. There’s Noel Coward’s Las Vegas lament “Why Must the Show Go On?” In a two-header with her funny and gifted accompanist Barney Hulse, Littlepage reprises that well-known Bea Lillie sketch about double damask dinner napkins.

But she doesn’t just stick to familiar favorites. Musical Comedy!, as she calls her new show, revives some wonderful material from lesser known comics like Flanders & Swann, Patricia Routledge and the sublime Joyce Grenfell. The latter puts in a memorable appearance as a lady trapped in mid-pew at a Sunday church service before she realizes she has left the gas on under Sunday lunch.

Always at the keyboard, the deft Barney offers his own solo selections, including a bit of Ivor Novello froth you might have heard briefly in Gosford Park called “And Her Mother Came Too.”

Once again, praise be, there are brief, sly guest appearances by Cliff Berry, who makes a Flanders and Swann gnu into something that looks and acts like an ingratiating cockney squirrel.

If there’s a fault it’s that it’s all finished in one brief hour, but as any self-respecting comic knows, it’s always better to leave ‘em laughing, than sneaking peeks at their Rolexes.

The music and laughter continue, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2 through July 2.

Born Yesterday

Born Free_RG_4404-Edit

By Philip Pearce

I ENJOYED the opening night of The Western Stage’s new production of Born Yesterday once I got over some heavy-handed opening “improvements” that have been added to the script. Jeff McGrath, a director I have always admired and frequently praised on this web site, has chosen to launch the play twenty minutes before curtain time by bringing on most of the cast and having them mill around the Studio Theater pretending to be patrons of a sleazy night club operated by the two central characters, Harry Brock and Billie Dawn. They all dance and chatter and improvise interactions with audience members and, for the life of me, I’m still wondering why.

Does McGrath think Studio Theater patrons need extra insight into the leading characters?  Has he decided Garson Kanin’s exemplary script doesn’t make it sufficiently clear that Brock is a belligerent money-grabbing roughneck and Billie a bubble-headed blonde? Or was all this forced merriment a way of suggesting that what lay ahead was the kind of free-for-all American farce that’s full of dancing teenagers, slamming doors, mistaken identities and snappy exit lines—which Born Yesterday isn’t?

I put aside my puzzlement when the actual play began, only to see an unlisted character (was that Fred Herro?) march in, all done up like a Russian diplomat in fur hat and briefcase. Greeted and welcomed—as “Vladimir” I think—he then disappeared through one of the bedroom doors of John Englehorn’s tasteful set, and only returned and exited in the final moments of the last act. If this was a wink and nudge at present day Washington and Moscow the audience either didn’t get the joke or, if they did, didn’t find it funny enough to laugh at.

Once all the cute creativity was over, the craft and humor of the original story and the work of a talented cast took over. It all became a fast and funny take on a 60-year-old Broadway and movie hit that reminds us, at a point when we really need reminding, that a democracy only survives if it’s made up of wise and informed citizens.

The plot of Born Yesterday follows the pleasant Cinderella girl pattern set by Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. Like Shaw’s Eliza, Kanin’s Billie Dawn is linked to a pompous and oppressive guy who decides she needs a crash course in the social graces. Like Eliza, ex-chorus girl Billie (“I said lines!”) proves to be such a quick study that her newfound education empowers her to defeat and disarm her oppressive benefactor.

Heather Osteraa is a revelation in the role. She adopts the required nasal New York squeak but never lets it mask the ins and outs of a complex, layered and ultimately lovable character. No production of Born Yesterday can really succeed if Billie doesn’t do justice to her famous gin rummy scene with boyfriend Harry. It’s a central element of her characterization: the erratic skill she demonstrates with the cards gives the lie to Harry’s claim that she’s just a “stupid broad“ and it helps make believable her quick subsequent  responses to art, music and political literature. The gin sequence is a highpoint of the new TWS version, because Osteraa gives it her own individual stamp, refusing to copy Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning movie rendition. Where Holiday concentrates so obsessively on her gin cards that she almost misses the fact that she‘s already taken another game from Harry, Osteraa’s Billie is already so blithely confident that her annoying humming of  “Anything Goes” is offered as a teasing challenge to Harry’s inferiority as a card player.

Equity actor Scott Free’s Harry is appropriately strident, loud and conceited but never lets the man become just a Johnny-one-note baddie. Harry’s real if stunted humanity usually emerges when he truculently confesses, “I love that broad.” Surprisingly, Free doesn’t make much of that line, but instead mines sympathy for Harry in his final, desperate scramble to keep Billie from running off with her tutor, Paul Verrall.

As the highbrow reporter who first educates and then woos Billie, Chuck Church is convincing enough though I would have welcomed a more ironic and leisured and a less fast-talking approach to the part.

It’s always a treat to watch the gifted Jeffrey T. Heyer at work and he’s on hand here to play the most interesting of the three major male characters. Ed Devery is the slick, philosophic lawyer/mouthpiece who keeps Harry Brock just windward of the law by insuring that all his junkyard business contracts are signed not by Harry but by his unwitting “silent partner” Billie. Devery sees the moral implications of this and of Harry’s wheeling and dealing for money and political clout with a crooked Senator named Norval Hedges, played by Dennis Hungridge with a nice undertone of slime hidden beneath a benign senatorial surface. Devery is never duped but always too boozed up and personally implicated to do anything but mordantly connive in all this dirty work. Heyer has never been better than in the play’s final elegiac words, a rueful toast to the enlightened dumb broads of this wicked world and the inspired eggheads who enlighten them.

It’s a pleasing show which manages to hit most of the marks in a clever script in spite of some misjudged efforts to add gratuitous and unnecessary hokum.

It plays weekends through July 2nd.