Great to Be Back!
At the Peabody Playhouse
It was a great day for critics when the creation brought forth the leopard. "Spotty" has been one of the most valuable words in the theatre jargon ever since, and it has never been more accurate than when applied to Great to Be Back! The HDC's latest production is a musical revue, which ideally would mean songs of verve and wit combined with imaginative sketches.
Part of the time, Great to Be Back! means exactly that. But much of the time it does not, and there's the rub--the wrong way. The material which is out-and-out bad regrettably is heaped together at the beginning, so audience morale lags and the viewer watches even the best material dubiously, certain that it can't last long.
The whole idea of the revue seems mostly at fault. Its cast is limited to eight characters--so far so good-but they each are supposed to be Renaissance characters, and that's not good at all. Had Colgate Salsbury, for example, been allowed to be variations on Monteverdi all evening, as the introduction promised, the cumbersome charades might have had more point. As it was, they were discarded whenever a brighter prospect for a song or laugh presented itself and resurrected when the authors would settle for a routine smile: "I'm getting tired of these parties, the same old people, the same old drinks, and on the phonograph, last year's Gregorian chants."
The first number in the show which I thought had any merit at all turned out to be the best of the evening. Clare Scott sings a song called "Mogambo Rag"--musically, lyric--and performance wise a perfect revue number. Miss Scott's abilities have been extolled before, and she has only gained in charm and attractivness since her appearance in School for Scandal. To my mind she was the spark which the whole show needed, and every sketch she appeared in was better for it. Had anyone else done "Mogambo Rag" it might have seemed disgusting; from Miss Scott it was droll and decent.
In a number called "Amuse Yourself," Miss Scott was joined by Barbara Forester, Hugh Fortmiller, and Colgate Salsbury for another of the evening's best features. The hokum about Arabs and the Foreign Legion which preceded it, like much of the Stephen Charnas-Andre Gregory book, seemed diffuse and veering almost instinctively toward the trite. Their happiest moment was a parody of Little Red Riding Hood which held its own pretty well with Jack Webb's and the score of other lampoons. Their version of an opera rehearsal was good fun too, although the staging sometimes let affected confusion substitute for hilarity.
Sam Weller, it seemed to me, does double duty, since the songs carry the show, and Weller's lyrics carry the songs. "We Want to Be Treated Like Women Again"--the number which shows Sheila Tobias off to best advantage--"To the Manor Born," "Happy Ending" and those already mentioned, are each cleverly concocted without being contrived. Charles Gross has proved himself equally talented on past occasions; this time, his music is adequate, sometimes less, never more.
Along with Clare Scott Lee Jeffries and Thomas Whedon were the stalwarts of the cast, with Andre Gregory not making the transition from legitimacy to the music hall quite so effortlessly. Miss Jeffries was the only reason for including a tired sequence about planned amusement at the beach, and Whedon met every demand of the evening good-humoredly and ably. I cared least for him in a sketch called "We See You, Fabritzius!" but then nothing or nobody could curb that dog.
Perhaps everyone connected with Great to Be Back! would rather be praised on other grounds than bravery. But the HDC did depart from form to tackle the show, and their eight performers did the organization proud. Don Bourne's settings and Leslie VanZandt's costumes also redounded only credit to the club. The University already demands two good musical scripts from its students, however. Trying to squeeze out another one was a calculated risk, and Great to Be Back! seemed to be a miscalculation.