Monday, July 7, 2014

June Moon, Jersey Boys, The Mystery of Irma Vep: Pop

Timothy Shew, Jason Bowen, Chris Fitzgerald, Nate Corddry, Rick Holmes in June Moon (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Williamstown Theatre Festival has opened its season with a buoyant revival of June Moon, the only collaboration between George S. Kaufman and sports columnist and short story writer Ring Lardner. It’s a comedy that, like Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, has an irresistible dolt at its center: Fred Stevens (an immensely likable performance by Nate Corddry), a rube from Schenectady who moves to the Big Apple to become a Tin Pan Alley lyric writer. Kaufman and Lardner based it on Lardner’s ingenious epistolary tale, “Some Like It Cold,” in which an aspiring songwriter keeps up a correspondence with a girl he met on the train en route to New York; what begins as a flirtation becomes more for the girl, who – under the guise of banter – thrusts herself forward as a candidate for marriage, while distance and the lure of a Manhattan vamp pull the boy farther and farther away from his pen pal. In its prologue June Moon dramatizes that parlor-car encounter between Fred, as he’s now called, and – also bound for New York – sweet, naïve Edna (“Eddie”) Baker (Rachel Napoleon, who suggests a cross between Lauren Graham and Michelle Lee: daffy but guileless). During the roughly two months’ time frame of the play, Fred and his songwriting partner, Paul Sears (Rick Holmes), come up with a hit, “June Moon,” and Fred becomes the plaything of Eileen (Holley Fain), the sister of Paul’s wife Lucille (Kate MacCluggage), who’s on the rebound from the music publisher, Mr. Hart (Timothy Shew), and determined to spend as much of Fred’s money as she can get away with. The cheerful, rhythmic use of vernacular (Lardner’s specialty) and the playwrights’ satirical take on Tin Pan Alley mark the play as a hard-boiled comedy, but it’s a much gentler one than Once in a Lifetime – it’s entirely sympathetic to Fred, who wriggles like a butterfly caught in Eileen’s net, and to Edna, who we know has to wind up with him. Corddry gives the poor, struggling, flat-footed bastard a soul, but we’re primed to love him; we even like his fatuous love song. (Lardner wrote the music and lyrics for “June Moon” and the handful of other songs we hear in the course of the play.)

The director, Jessica Stone, nails the milieu – with the expert help of set designer Tobin Ost and costume designer Gregg Barnes (the outfits are gorgeous) – and the fresh-faced ensemble, which also includes Diana Dimarzio as Goldie, the secretary at Goebel’s (the music publishing office, where the second and third acts take place), and Jason Bowen in a nice bit as a window washer, acquit themselves admirably. Aside from TV veteran Corddry and Holmes, who played Lord Aster on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher, the only performer I recognized was the eternally delightful Christopher Fitzgerald (Stone’s husband and a featured player in many shows both in Williamstown and New York). Sporting a tiny mustache and specs, Fitzgerald shows up as a Goebel’s staffer who mourns the untimely demise of his would-be hit about a lovestruck boy trying to call Tokyo while plugging his latest creation, “Give Our Child a Name.” Sheerly ridiculous, he’s one emblem of the play’s hard-boiled-comic impulse. The other is the heartless, amoral Fletcher sisters, both gold-diggers (Lucille is cheating on her hubby). Fain and MacCluggage, both sleek and long-legged, are a perfect match.

The musical interludes before act one and act two, where young singers proffer period songs at a downstage piano, don’t do much for the show; the renditions aren’t memorable and the staging isn’t very good. And something goes a little screwy with the tone at the end: it gets too serious. This may be a problem in the script, though I suspect Stone might have fixed it – come close, at least – if she’d played the scene more briskly.

The original Broadway production of June Moon was a hit, even though it opened just weeks before the stock market crash in 1929, and it generated two movie versions, one in 1931 and the other (titled Blonde Trouble) in 1937. I’ve never known either to show up; it’s likely that the first, if not both, has been lost. PBS’s Theater in America series telecast a version in 1974 that I remember as rather indifferent, and aside from an off-Broadway mounting about a decade and a half ago featuring Cynthia Nixon as Eileen – which I didn’t catch – this is the first stage revival I’ve heard of. It’s an ideal summer treat, like lemonade laced with gin.

Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergenn, John Lloyd Young, and Michael Lomenda in Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys is set nearly half a century farther along in the history of American pop music. The new movie version is really bad, but even though God knows I’m no fan of the director, Clint Eastwood, this is one case where I’m not inclined to blame it on him. I saw Jersey Boys on stage and it wasn’t any better, though it won the Tony Award and toured the country for years. The script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (whose screenplay makes very few changes), is a musical bio – of Frankie Valli and the other three musicians in his band, The Four Seasons – that doesn’t bother to provide a dramatic arc. Stage audiences were willing to forgive the fact that the movie is just one thing after another, but certain jukebox musicals are often immune to criticism (think of Mamma Mia!, which seemed to have been put together and performed by robots) – at least until someone is unwise enough to put them on camera, which operates on them like an x-ray machine, exposing them for the bare bones they are. If Jersey Boys isn’t quite as awful on screen as Mamma Mia!, that’s because the songs are better, and indisputably better sung, and the choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, stages them simply – at least, until the rather lunatic finale, which features, among other mistakes, Frankie (John Lloyd Young) dancing with both his ex-wife (Renée Marino) and his ex-girl friend (Erica Piccininni).

The movie certainly has plot, but that isn’t the same as structure. Frankie and his Jersey pals, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), who are in and out of trouble with the law as teens, make it as a band when they pick up a fourth, the talented songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Frankie marries his first serious girl friend, Mary, and they seem happy enough until – presto! – suddenly she’s a drunk who’s resentful of the time he spends on the road, away from their family. (Marino is such a ferocious scenery chewer in the collapse-of-the-marriage section that you start looking for a place to hide.) The band seems happy together until – presto! - it turns out that Tommy, who doubles as the band’s business manager, has accumulated a massive debt and only a combination of the intervention of the boys’ Mafia mentor (played by relative cool by a slumming Christopher Walken) and Frankie’s unswerving loyalty save his ass. But first the movie unaccountably flashes back two years so we can see the build-up to what turns out to be the end of The Four Seasons (and the beginning of Valli’s solo career). At this point you begin to wonder if Brickman and Elice are out of their minds. Their only excuse for a structure is a chronology, and then they violate that? That’s not the only time you question their sanity. The play has a shifting first-person narrator; one by one each member of the band gets to tell the audience part of their story. This device, shaky enough on stage, has been transferred directly to the film, where the actors address the camera directly. It’s so stagy that you start looking for klieg lights in the corners of the screen. And that idiotic finale is “theatrical,” too.

Young gives a bland performance; Piazza and Lomenda are more distinctive but only because they caricature their roles. Bergen is the easiest to watch because he has an amiable presence, but as written Gaudio doesn’t have much color either. Mike Doyle seems to be having a good time playing the flamboyantly gay record producer Bob Crewe, but it’s a faintly absurd performance. Bergen is the only one in the cast who seems to be grounded in the real world.

Musical bios are very easy to warm to: Funny Girl, The Buddy Holly Story, Sweet Dreams (about Patsy Cline), I Walk the Line (Johnny Cash) and Ray (Ray Charles) – not to mention the faux bios The Rose (a fictionalized treatment of Janis Joplin) and Dreamgirls (a fictionalized treatment of The Supremes) – are pleasure-giving, and often very poignant, films. Except for the songs, Jersey Boys gives you almost nothing.

Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt in The Mystery of Irma Vep, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (Photo by Emily Faulkner)

Bill Bowers and Tom Hewitt appear to be having a marvelous time in the Berkshire Theatre Festival revival of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. Ludlam wrote the piece (originally produced by his Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1984) for himself and one other actor, Everett Quinton, who shared several roles between them, and the cross-dressing and lightning costume changes are among the pleasures of this production as well. The audience laughs appreciatively every time one of the actors disappears as one character and pops up again moments later as another.

The play, the full title of which is The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful, is a camp parody of Rebecca, Wuthering Heights and the English supernatural thrillers that were popular in the Edwardian era (and that James Whale had already parodied in his hilarious 1932 movie The Old Dark House). The renowned Egyptologist Lord Edgar Hillcrest brings his bride Enid home to his mansion on the moors, Mandacrest, where his first wife, Irma, died, and Enid discovers that the house may be haunted by the ghost of her predecessor, a portrait of whose wife hangs ominously over the mantle. Ludlam has peppered the dialogue with gay double entendres and overstuffed the play with werewolves and vampires and mummies (the second act takes place in an Egyptian tomb), and the rendering of all this plot by a pair of zealous actors is suitably ridiculous. The style of the performances is skillful hambone – one of Ludlam’s big influences seems to have been The Carol Burnett Show. Hewitt and Bowers send up not only the genre but also the fond excesses of diva spectacles in general, though their curtain calls are modest and rather sweet, and at the end they share the stage with their dressers.

Aaron Mark’s staging is a little clumsy (in ways that don’t seem deliberate), but Alan C. Edwards’s lighting covers for him in the key Grand Guignol moments, and the sets by Randall Parsons and especially the costumes by Wade Laboisonniere are fun. Laboissoniere’s wit is visible particularly in the gowns he’s designed for Hewitt as Lady Enid. Hewitt is much taller than Bowers, and those dresses make him much broader, too, so when Bowers is playing Lord Edgar and the two men engage in any sort of romantic interlude, the results are highly entertaining. The problem with the show is in the play itself, which doesn’t have enough energy to sustain itself for two hours – a tall order for a theatrical parody of any kind – and starts to droop around act three.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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