Me And My Girl

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

TWS’ Evita

By Philip Pearce

THE RISE AND FALL of Eva Peron was a small but fascinating piece of 20th century history. It became part of western pop culture when her rags to riches story, set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice, was a sold-out hit of the 1978 London theater season. A Broadway transfer earned the first Tony Award ever given to a foreign-born musical. If you missed all of that—or even if you didn’t—you shouldn’t miss the explosive and glorious new production of Evita now on view at The Western Stage in Salinas.  

    Visually and musically, this Evita fills the big main stage with four strong lead performances and a swiftly choreographed pattern of ensemble movement that is little short of dazzling.

    Malinda DeRouen is slick and powerful in a performance of the title role that changes her from an Argentine country girl with big ambitions and a will of steel to a political superstar hailed by adoring multitudes (“She’s a Diamond”) as a national saint. Maegan Roux’s impressive costume design and the work of an eight-member hair and make-up team signal the stages in a rise to political notoriety via show biz fame that is all too familiar these days. It’s fascinating to watch the brunette frizz and sexy skirt of the pushy teen-aged Evita morph step by step into the smooth honey blonde outlines of a fashionable celebrity.  

    First rung on her ladder to the stars is getting out of the Argentine boondocks and into a big city she’s convinced she’ll take by storm (“Buenos Aires”) if she can just find a guy with the cash and show biz contacts to get her there. A touring tango- dancing nightclub tenor named Magaldi turns up and seems to fit the bill. Played with energy and his usual vocal skill by Jared Hussey, he comes armed with a lot of smarmy charm and a killer theme-song (“On the Night of a Thousand Stars”). Reluctant at first (“Eva, Beware of the City”) Magaldi gives in and agrees to take Eva along on his return trip to the capital. Once there, she predictably dumps him and starts hunting bigger game.

    Notably, a rising military star with ambitions to match her own. Jeff Hinderscheid brings a strong voice and a commanding presence to the role of Juan Perón. He’s all affability and military dash on the surface, all ruthless upward push on the inside. In a hilarious number (“The Art of the Possible”) Juan and other members of a secret military junta plotting a coup confront each other in a spit-and-polish game of musical rocking chairs. One by one, colonel by colonel, they lose their seats and are rough-housed into the wings till only Perón and one uneasy cohort are left. Incisive lyrics plus slickly organized direction and acting made this, for me, the comic high point of the opening night performance. 

    Having charmed the swaggering Juan on a Buenos Aires dance floor, Eva ties him down for life in his bedroom, from which she first ejects the previous occupant who is only cast listed as “Perón’s mistress.” Sarah Horn plays this cameo with a quiet assurance that proves she can sing as well as dance to Megan Tan’s choreography. Her number (“Another Suitcase in Another Hall”) adds a brief, welcome note of pathos to the hurried clamor of Act I. 

    The irony of it all is underlined by the powerful presence and icy commentary of no less than Che Guevara, played by the assured and gifted Justin Gaudoin. His performance is enhanced by a striking physical resemblance to photographs of the iconic political rebel. Lloyd Webber and Rice present him as the splash of cold water that repeatedly washes away the hubris and pretense behind the Peróns’ political wheeling and dealing. Early in the action, he speaks only to the audience and occasionally to the adoring mobs of Perón supporters and, possibly only through them, to Eva herself. But he never meets the lady face-to-face until their two philosophies finally go to war (“A Waltz for Eva and Che”), an extended dream fantasy Eva undergoes when she is dying of cancer near the end of the play.

    But, significant as they are, it’s not the men in her life who ultimately tip the scales in the life of Evita. It’s the people, the crowds, the mobs she must mold and manipulate into a base of voters who will determine, pro or con, whether she succeeds. The ensemble of this production are just as important as the named characters. In Evita’s early struggles for name recognition, they shout her praises and wave “Viva Evita” signs on poles. When she dresses up fancy and launches an overseas tour, they become foreign groups assessing, not always in flattering terms,  her efforts to impress Europe with South American culture and haute coutour. When she reacts to Che’s sardonic claims that she’s a populist politician who ignores the poor and needy, Eva forms a splashy Perón charity and the ensemble pushes forward a children’s choir who accept handouts and pipe out her praises in the hymn-like anthem (“Santa Evita”). It’s the top virtue of this admirable show that director Joanne Gordon and the whole production team have grasped the importance of mobs and  factions and congregations and trained an ensemble who are never a coordinated company of cloned singers/dancers but continue to form themselves into a shifting, varied and central element of Eva Perón’s political dreams.

    The music from Don Dally and a sixteen member orchestra is strong and persuasive, suiting their sound to the forward pressure of the plot but sometimes, at least to me, threatening well-balanced audibility. I discovered however that it was my fault, not the orchestra’s. Western Stage caters sympathetically to my geriatric hearing with season tickets for down-front seating. Great for straight plays, but for musicals they tend to drown in brass and percussion. It’s a question of geography. From my up- close vantage point I got a perfectly clear idea of the basic story but missed some of the specific details in a musical with virtually no spoken dialogue. After the intermission, I sneaked into an empty seat eight rows higher and heard everything loud and clear. 

    It’s well worth listening to and watching and continues through December 7th, with an Audience Talk-Back Q & A Session with cast and creative team after the Sunday November 24th matinee.