REVIEW: Oh, Boy! (City Lit Theatre)

A fun musical romp for the entire family

 oh-boy-logo

  
City Lit Theater presents
  
Oh, Boy!
  
Book and lyrics by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Music by
Jerome Kern
Directed by
Sheldon Patinkin
Music direction by
Kingsley Day
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through June 27  tickets: $25   |  more info

Reviewed by Robin Sneed

There is theatre that is bold for it’s depth and experimentation, and there is theatre that is bold for it’s lightness and recollection of what has gone before us in American theatre history. Oh, Boy!, presented by City Lit Theater is just that kind of risk taking that dares to be innocent and fun, to stand back from too heavy a regard for our most important themes, and do that thing the theatre is most known for: entertain. All the while reminding us that we do come from somewhere.

First, a brief history lesson. In the 1900’s, we had in this country something called The Princess Theatre, a 299-seat theatre that was losing money. One of the investors, Elizabeth Marbury, commissioned small comedies to save the theatre, and that gave birth to what we call drawing room comedy and bedroom farce in the Americas (aka Princess Theatre musicals) – all while Oscar Wilde, across the pond, was already feeding this movement. This was cutting edge, as it dared to ask questions about morality and prohibition, sex and marriage, however tame to eyes in 2010. To the modern viewer, this genre might be soft, but not so fast. Does it not ask questions about drugs and marriage in this century? It simply presents those questions in the most kind and singing way. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the lyrics for Oh, Boy!, and he was daring indeed. Don’t these same songs represent our current frustration with current standards of morality and principles? Oh, Boy! simply demonstrates this with a most pretty and satisfying image, and one that says this issue is not one solely of the poor. These are wealthy people being depicted, and their pain, while only of the pin prick variety, still enters into the conversation.

In any good drawing room musical comedy or bedroom farce, the costumes must be exquisite. And Oh Boy! delivers. Designed by Thomas Kieffer, the dress in this play sparkles and glows and we are sent back in time to a place of careful manners, fine dress, often used as a kind of armor. Though these are issues of morality dressed in their Sunday best, don’t we have the same questions wearing blue jeans?

The standout performance here is from Patti Roeder as Penelope Budd. She rocks the house as the Quaker aunt who arrives on the scene of her nephew already wed to what is considered by her to be an undesirable woman. She sails around us drunk, riding on imaginary carousels and brings focus to the dilemma. Aunt Penelope, a person of abstinence, gets loaded’ and puts the equation into order, forcing by way of her escapades, that the people around her tell the truth. Her nephew, admirably played by Sean George, at long last declares his true love in the face of the debauchery of the Quaker auntie gone temporarily mad by alcohol and delivered from her moral hardness. In this way, drawing room comedies draw from Shakespeare, showing two sides of a coin, pick the side which most resonates with you and learn from it. Roeder is a delight in this role, a fierce comedic genius. Apparently, this is her first turn in a role like this, and I, for one, would like to see more. She reminded me of the great Carol Burnett. And that is saying something from these quarters.

All in this cast turn in solid and good performances. This is difficult work and all hands are onboard to deliver motion and music, questions and answers, readily. At 2.5 hours, it runs a bit too long, but such is meditation in the theatre.

Producing Oh, Boy!, which has not been performed in Chicago since 1918, is a bold move. This is viewing for the whole family, with no fear of exposing children to overt sexuality or heavy themes of addiction. It asks the question gently, and so very prettily, of what we might thinking. In my youth, this kind of theatre led to a great many important post-theatre dinner conversations with my father. I am reminded of a viewing in my youth of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Oh, I had so much to say to my father! The play had so much to say and ask. Along with The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, with theatre like Oh, Boy!, young and old alike are invited into the sphere of questions and answers. This is family viewing at it’s best, away from television, and into real flesh and blood performances, discussion starters, and the gossamer memories of just plain good theatre. I encourage families to see this play, go out for dinner afterward, and talk about the pretty costumes, music, and deeper themes. There is something in Oh Boy! for everyone.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

 

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Review – Next Theatre’s "The Adding Machine"

AddingMachine---06-web-733116 The Adding Machine: A Chamber Musical is an intriguing, hard-to-pigeonhole piece of musical theatre. With music by Josh Schmidt and a libretto by Schmidt and Jason Loewith, The Adding Machine is a through-sung work with glimpses of Sondheim’s Passion, Guettel’s A Light in the Piazza and LaChuisa’s Wild Party. Nonetheless, it is set apart from these examples through its use of comprehensible melodies on top of layered dissonances; changing time signatures juxtaposed with sharply-syncopated choral chants. In its world-premier, Evanston’s Next Theatre Company has taken a noteworthy risk by commissioning and presenting this piece. Based on a rarely-produced 1923 play of the same name by expressionist playwright Elmer Rice, the show mostly works. But there are some caveats, all in the second half of the show, that keep The Adding Machine from realizing its full potential.

Though there is no intermission, the play is comprised of two distinct acts, delineated by the death of the main character, Mr. Zero (artfully played by the talented Joel Hatch). In the first section of The Adding Machine, the world is engulfed in numbers. The main character, Mr. Zero, works as an accountant. Mrs. Zero (wonderfully sung by Cyrilla Baer) is continually unhappy, contemplating the clichéd conclusion that Mr. Zero really is a zero, and she never should have married him.

AddingMachine---01-727264 Undoubtedly the work’s most mesmerizing section takes place in the second scene of the well-delineated first act. Mr. Zero is at work, sitting at the first of three tables, methodically and laboriously writing down numbers fed to him by his assistant Miss Devore (Amy Warren). As the chorus, sitting at tables behind him, hauntingly chants number after number (infusing clever asides, their brains wandering away from numbers and instead to thoughts of beer and girls), Zero relays that today is his 25th anniversary at the company, and he’s sure he will get a promotion. The boss, the stoic Mr. Charles (Michael Vieau) shows up. But instead of promoting him, Zero is canned, being told that with the advent of the adding machine, his job can now be done by high school girls at a sliver of his salary. (Echoing the present day’s outsourcing of jobs to other countries, where they are paid a fraction of our salaries). That evening, at a dinner party thrown by Mrs. Zero, with Mr. and Mrs. One (Rosalind Hurwitz and Steve Welsh) and the Two’s (Toni Inzeo and Kevin Mayes) in attendance, her husband is arrested for murdering his boss. What follows is a clever scene in prison on death row, where Zero meets the disturbing Shrdlu (Ian Westerfer), who has killed his mother by cutting her throat instead of the lamb that his mother has made for her son’s dinner. (i.e., mom turns into the sacrificial lamb?)

The second section, occurring after Zero has been put to death, falls flat, the storyline veering away from any kind of worthy conflicts and – as my father told me when trying in vain to teach me how to swing a baseball bat – no follow-through. We are supposedly in heaven, Shrudlu, the mom-killer, is there. Zero, too, is present. And Zero’s assistant, Mrs. Devore, just happens to also be there. Zero and Devore soon realize that they are in love. All this unexplained oddness abets an unfortunately dissatisfying ending.

The singing is mostly excellent. The characters have lovely, adaptable voices, and the music director, Jeremy Ramey, has done a great job blending the cast’s instruments, successfully honing the difficult syncopations of the choir. But a few of the main characters, specifically Zero and Shrdlu, do not have the chops to sing this discordant and often operatic score. In the beginning this is okay, as their wavering voices match their character’s woes. But this vocal crudeness becomes a problem near the end when these same characters are no longer suffering.

The design team has done a notable job, with the highest honor given to Keith Parham, the lighting designer. His design is dead-on, thoroughly matching and enhancing the dynamics of the story – dark and ominous in the first half and utopian in the second. In one remarkable scene, as Zero is entering heaven, the lights are cast in such a way that projects Zero as having wings. As the lighting changes, though, it is revealed that these “wings” are in fact just a coat thrown over his shoulder. This is some of the best lighting work seen in recent years.

Overall, if you’re an avid fan of new musical works, works that push the boundaries of stereotypical musical theatre, The Adding Machine is worth seeing – even when taking into consideration the aforementioned problems. Indeed, the accounting scene alone is worth the price of the ticket. The score and orchestrations are exemplary, matching much of what you’d hear on Broadway. If only the show was just about the first act, it would be highly recommended. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Rating: «««