By Philip Pearce
“WHILE DICTATORS RAGE and statesmen talk, all Europe dances—to The Lambeth Walk.” So wrote the London Times in October 1938, a year before World War 2 and a year after a big-budget musical called Me and My Girl had opened in the West End. The show’s hit number was “The Lambeth Walk,” Britain’s swing dance answer to the American “Big Apple.” Featured were a cast of London musical stars headed by Lupino Lane. They sang and danced to tunes you could whistle afterward in your taxi. Between song cues they told jokes and talked jokey British dialogue. The show ran for four years and has kept getting revived ever since.
Jewel Theatre Company is playing it as a fast and frantic, funny and beautiful looking period piece at its Colligan Theater headquarters in Santa Cruz. It’s deftly directed and choreographed by Lee Ann Payne and the costumes by B. Modern are dazzling. Faithful to tradition, Act 1 ends with a big, splashy show-stopping rendition of composer Noel Gay’s “Lambeth Walk.”
Me and My Girl is the kind of spoofed up study of class inequalities that these days might be renamed My Fair Gentleman. Lambeth-born cockney Bill Snibson, acted with lots of joy and pizazz by delightful Shaun Carroll, accepts a baffling invitation to Hareford Hall, the very stately home of a clan of aristocrats who can trace their family pedigree back before William the Conqueror and frequently do.
Both the Harefords and the puzzling lower class interloper are thunderstruck when family solicitor Herbert Parchester tells them their search for the rightful heir of the recently deceased Duke of Hareford is at an end. Newly discovered family documents reveal that the Dukedom belongs to Bill Snibson. Small and sly and proper, then rollicking and full of mischief, the marvelous Martin Rojas Dietrich is a miniature riot in the role of Parchester.
A frantic family confab decides the only option is to polish Bill up into a proper country gentleman before depositing him in the House of Lords. Bill can’t believe his luck but feels kind of daunted by a new collection of relatives who are the kind of stuck-up loonies who’ve delighted theatergoers from The Pirates of Penzance to Fawlty Towers. Bill’s education in the social niceties will be the work of his new aunt, Maria, Duchess of Dene, a corseted upper-crust dragon in the tradition of Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet. Diana Torres Koss plays her with the off-hand, no-nonsense hauteur of someone accustomed to instant obedience. Her predictably henpecked husband, Sir John Tremayne, engagingly acted by Christopher Reber, spends his time resolving to take a stand against scary Maria, and escaping into boozy compliance at the moment of truth.
As Lady Jaqueline Carstone, a hard-hearted blonde temptress of the brand made famous by Binnie Barnes, Shelby Stewart shares some hilarious knock-about sessions of thwarted seduction with the reluctant Bill and a big teal sofa.
Another standard fixture of 1930s British farce is the bespectacled upper crust British doofus Gerald Bolingbroke, who turns nauseous at any mention of gainful employment. He adores Jaqueline but can’t compete with her single-minded passion for Billy’s newly expanded bankroll. Nicolas Yenson not only gives a gloriously squeaky intensity to the ever hopeful Gerald but dominates a big tap number even with a background ensemble who all dance like champions.
So far, it’s been a stageload of eccentrics. And that really has to include Bill, who is too busy bouncing blissfully around like a Cockney kid in a Kensington sweet shop to make any real progress in upward social mobility. His only rock solid conviction is that any move into posh social circles has got to include his girlfriend Sally. Authors L Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber plus a wonderful winning performance by Julie James make it clear that a good musical farce needs laughs but it’s also, like Damn Yankees, Got to Have Heart. And it’s Sally Brown who supplies heart to this show.
Don’t get me wrong, she can sing like an angel and clown it up, move for move, as riotously as Billy does. Aware that he has suddenly joined a historic British family, she joins in a review of the English history lessons they think they learned in grade school. They agree that Noah’s wife was a gal named Joan of Ark and that George Washington discovered gravity when sitting under a cherry tree and getting hit by a falling apple. But under all her beguiling foolishness it’s only Sally from Lambeth who sees the truth: Bill is never going to hit the social A List if he has her clinging to his coat tails. So she bolts and hides and resists his frantic efforts to track her down and marry her.
It’s interesting in a show created at a time reputedly dominated by male theatrical egos that most of Me and My Girl happens with Sally and the other female characters firmly in charge and making the important decisions, while the males waver, comply and do nothing. Only in the last twenty minutes or so of the story does Sir John pull up his socks and come up with a secret scheme that reunites Bill and Sally and puts an end to ludicrous efforts to create an ersatz country gent. What happens has some of the earmarks of Eliza and Higgins, so I suspect it’s part of the revisions comedian Stephen Fry made to bring the 1937 script into sync with the theatrical world of a 1985 London revival that cast the role of Sally with a promising newcomer named Emma Thompson.
Meanwhile, back in Santa Cruz: Even the best of opening nights sometimes includes things you hope will be tweaked and adjusted as the run continues. I hope somebody gives a fresh critical listen to the sound levels between the cast and the orchestra tape. Solos and duets like “Once You Lose Your Heart” came across just fine. Thanks to strong vocal work, even the words to small group and big ensemble comedy numbers like my favorite, “The Family Solicitor,” were audible, but the tape seemed to have an intrusive tendency to dominate where it should just accompany.
It’s a rollicking end-of-year event, and continues weekends through December 8th.
Photos by Steve DiBartolomeo