"THERE ARE OTHER things in life beside sex and booze," wails Belle Bottom midway through the first act of Bottoms Up. "Yeah, but try to name one fast," her father Rock Bottom retorts. The level of punning never gets much higher than clinkers like the protagonists' names, so you had better find a little delight in Rock's old-fashioned cynicism. And if you'll buy, even for one night, the fragile premise that liquor and screwing are the soul of a good time, the 121st Hasty Pudding Show just may seem a delight rather than a fleece job.
Inevitably a virgin is seduced (twice in fact it's so funny) and a teetotalling bar-smasher gets roaring drunk, but this particular show extends its faithfulness to formula a bit too far. Individual lines like "you boys couldn't flatten out a wrinkled postage stamp" ring a little hollow. I wondered during the first act whether the show would stoop to the Beach Party level of repartee with one character emphatically commenting "You can say that again," and his buddy really saying it again. It was there all right, a little dressed up, but dismally there all the same. Of course part of the fun is scavenging--a line from Casablanca, a scene from The Music Man, a bit of police marching from Gilbert and Sullivan--why not run through the most cliched joke conventions as well. But the business of an amusing show is to amuse and author David Patterson's inability to deliver the great laugh makes one suspect that the bad ones are there out of desperation, not for satire.
But the show does better than the gags. There's a hint of elegant symmetry to the plot which brings Hatchet Ma Marion and her splendidly repressed son to Bootleg, U.S.A., a last outpost of boisterous prohibition violation. After Rock, the pink-spatzed hoodlum who runs the town, has dropped 45 jokes about his daughter Belle's drunkenness, the 46th ought to be an embarassment, but such is the momentum that it's not.
THE ENIGMATIC author isn't hiding himself in the wings--he is out there playing the lead, Rock, stage-managing each big number. And Patterson's performance seemed very much like the show he wrote. At times, you don't see Patterson, Rock Bottom, or anything like a person in the character--only a hyperactive catalogue of disembodied musical comedy gestures. It's a trick best watched in an alcoholic haze, perhaps, but a trick that succeeds.
Danny Troob's and John Forster's music is a splendid way to cover the script's sins. A good number of the songs sound the same, but it's a good sound and the repetitions are easy to forgive. Troob seems fascinated with a pattern of slow-lead-in, break into new, snappy meter, plant a long dance between the second and third verse. The best of them are straightforward satires--anemic Junior's self-discovery ("Number One and Only You") and a stay-away-from-sin number at the start of the Second Act ("You Can Be Celibate Too").
Nick Clark as Ma Marion and Jack Olive as Junior are in beautiful control of their parts and complement Patterson's sometimes undirected energy. Clark wields a strong umbrella, an even stronger arched eyebrow, struts and talks his castrating role for all its raucous humor. Olive, who doesn't have much of a singing voice, is almost obscenely comfortable on a stage, engaging and convincing as he puts across the show's only ballad. Randy Parry (Belle Bottom) develops the indifferent drunken daughter's part well, but is overshadowed by the sensational obscene clowning of Ed Strong and Randy Guffey as the secretarial pool, which Rock lends Bootleg's mayor in anticipation of future favors. Smaller parts are handled with uniform wit and energy, though Bill Kiely rates a plate of cold spaghetti for his tepid attempts at an Italian accent.
Choreography and costumes never err on the side of understatement, but while it is easy to become annoyed with the Pudding's pretensions to professionalism, you have to concede that they put on a pretty professional show. A wonderful parody of Lido lavishness almost redeems the anticlimatic kickline number, and when the formulaic jokes become tedious, you can pass the time between songs looking at some very imaginatively designed shoes and purses.