Sunday, July 3, 2011

Home Again

(The national tour of "Jersey Boys" is at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, July 17)

The brand of reader who would gander at the Eunuch undoubtedly realizes by now its intent is to supply a portal to our forebears' joys. It is a site to proclaim hosannas when local theater manages to encapsulate those flashes of insight or madcap Charlestons that took Grandma Sadie's mind off the butcher bill. For our core belief is that which was once valuable endures like pan-gold nuggets and the dross from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Me and Juliet" to the new Spider-Man extravaganza will sink into murky oblivion.

For example, at PlayhouseSquare, "Jersey Boys" - in a month-long run - has become the equivalent of a nostalgic trip to the seashore loaded with sex and sass. It's an evening intended to thrill anyone old enough to have worn or embraced anyone in a leisure suit. In reality, it is the best of a sub-specimen of musical theater known as the jukebox musical, where the canon of a one-time pop phenomenon, in this case Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is fired ad nauseum.

One would think it would be a Herculean task to imbue emotional heft to a show whose heart beats in the melodies of "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man." However, the creators, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, have been savvy enough to mythologize Valli's Brooklyn wailings much the same way Warner Bros. rhapsodized George M. Cohan to stand for an entire era. Just as the Cohan film utilized the skill of director Michael Curtiz and the undying charisma of its star, James Cagney, "Jersey Boys" uses the propulsive energy and falsetto Valli dynamism to create a neurotic epic of mobsters, small-time gamblers and drug-store Casanovas. It's what would have happened if Martin Scorsese had taken on "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

(Raine Thorne, left, as Karen O'Kane and Jacob Allen as Prince James in the Ohio Light Opera production of "Jubilee." Photo by Matt Dilyard.)

The Ohio Light Opera in Wooster caters to a far more silken, crinoline taste. It is one of the few places left in the United States to satiate those who still have loving and vague recollections of Jeanette McDonald singing Friml or Bobby Short crooning Porter. Commencing with Gilbert and Sullivan, evolving into European-strudel operetta and eventually segueing into Broadway, they have performed a hit-and-miss archeology through the decades. "Jubilee," written in 1935 by Cole Porter and Moss Hart, proves to be one of their most successful excavations. It chronicles that time when operetta was giving way to red-hot-and-blue Americana. The company tends to falter when presenting post-Rodgers and Hammerstein book musicals, but fortunately "Jubilee" still partly clings to operetta tradition. The book - with its royal blue-bloods on the lam from responsibility, sultry dancers and zany bad-boy playwright (Hart's first fictionalization of Noel Coward)- brings to mind the screwball comedies you can see any night on Turner Movie Classics.

(Jackie Kelk, left, and Montgomery Clift as the young princes in the original 1935 production of Cole Porter and Moss Hart's "Jubilee.")

However, the moment that makes the long drive to Wooster worth it is when the petulant princess and fun-loving playwright airily rise out of bed and perform one of Porter's lesser-known but delightful list songs, "A Picture of Me Without You." It is here that we not only experience the DNA of Porter's magical touch, we also see the raison d'etre of the pre-1950s musical comedy. Utilizing a 25-cent budget on a show that begs for a small fortune, thanks to the Ohio Light Opera's bonhomie, the production is given life by Julie Wright Costa's vintage eccentricity as the queen, Ted Christopher's endearing goofball of a king and choreographer Carol Hageman's adept unearthing of lost joie de vivre. Both Woody Allen and Thomas Wolfe claim it's fruitless to try and go back, but Wooster proves them partially wrong.

"Jersey Boys" runs through Sunday, July 17 at Playhouse Square. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Jubilee" runs in repertory with eight other works at the College of Wooster through Saturday, Aug. 13. For tickets, call 330-263-2345.

1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to thank you for your compliments. You mention that it is the Princess & Playwright who rise out of bed to sing "A Picture of Me Without You," but it is actually Karen O'Kane and the Prince. ;) What a great review!

    ~ Raina Thorne aka. "Karen O'Kane" :)