The Roar of the Greasepaint
REMEMBER Our Gang? Once in a while, about every third episode, inspiration would strike Spanky, who could never contain his enthusiasm. "Let's put on a show!" he'd declare. And every one of those loveable Little Rascals would have a part in the production. Darla would flutter and swoon. Alfalfa would flutter and swoon and croon in the lead part. Froggy talked like a frog. Buckwheat made the backdrop. Everything would be just fine until those rich kids from across the block showed up. They'd mess around with the scenery. Maybe they'd push Porky down and make him cry. And then they'd nab poor sweet Darla. Thank goodness faithful Buckwheat was on hand to trip one of the little villains in the Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. Even Alfalfa would get into the act, giving one of those rich kids a good pop in the eye. Back in the Depression, those Little Rascals always won.
Written by Oscar Alcantara, Jonathan
Greenberg, and Jonathan Lisco
Directed by Michael Allosso
At The Hasty Pudding Theater
Through March 22
The Hasty Pudding show is counterinsurgency from the other other-side-of-the-tracks, with the opposition's best weapons turned against it. There's plenty of freewheeling good fun and innocent charm. But the rich kids mobilize weapons of their own, too-like daddy's checkbook to buy the best professional choreography, direction and technical wizardry money can lure to Cambridge in the middle of winter. Since there are "no gurlz allowed," mom's dressmaker gets the workout of the season, wrapping hairy chests in silky body stockings.
Opening night at the Hasty Pudding Show is what happens when the cast invites its tony friends over to join in the fun. Those well-scrubbed rich kids in cute little velvet suits nowadays are wearing tuxedos with bow ties rakishly angled. The Moxie has given way to a drink that pops before it fizzes. Anybody who's anybody among the campus bourgeoisie wouldn't miss it. It seems like anybody who's been anybody among the campus bourgeoisie since the Class of 1925 wouldn't miss it.
LAST night's opening of Hasty Pudding Theatrical #140, Saint Misbehavin,' delivered just what the audience wanted most. The champagne flowed, and anybody who couldn't be spotted in the lobby between acts just wasn't somebody you really wanted to talk to anyway. All that-and the show was a good one besides.
After a snappy opening number introduces Saint Misbehavin' Hospital-"If you're stricken with psoriasis/ We might think it's leprosy/ But in the final analysis/ Saint M's the place to be"-the action lags a bit. A too-complicated sequence establishes that the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. Xavier Lyfe (John Claflin), is keeping a mistress in the hospital at government expense.
The strange bit justifies-to the extent that a Pudding plot requires-Lyfe's complicity in an elaborate hoax masterminded by billionaire "horseshoe magnate" Richard Denuar (Jason Tomarken). Uncertain of his family's affection in his declining years, Denuar hits upon a clever scheme to test the love of his four daughters and sixth wife: He will feign illness and then stage his own funeral to learn his family's true feelings. Only those who love him for himself will earn a share of his fortune.
The pace picks up halfway through the first act, when Denuar arrives at Saint M's and blackmails Dr. Lyfe into helping with the subterfuge. But a civic-minded faction of the hospital's staff, outraged over the chief of staff's Medicaid scam, learns of Denuar's plan. Led by the hospital's German-accented head nurse, the authoritarian Barb Dwyer (Jon Blackstone), the insurgents resolve to bring down Dr. Lyfe while winning the fortune for themselves. They will share their information with one of the billionaire's daughters in exchange for a share of her inheritance.
In one of the evening's smoothest duets, brash young intern Greg Arius, played by the show's best voice, Adam Wolman, wins over the billionaire's man-hating daughter, Miss Anne Thrope (Todd Fletcher). If Miss Anne cries crocodile tears while her sisters and stepmothers celebrate Denuar's death, she will gain his confidence--and eventually the lion's share of his estate. Secretly, Nurse Dwyer plans to bring about the horseshoe mogul's death with arsenic from Saint M's lab.
This all makes for a pretty complicated Pudding plot. Fortunately, though, the authors of this year's script-Oscar Alacantara, Jonathan Lisco and Jonathan Greenberg-realize that people come to Pudding shows for lyrics, puns and kicklines.
Saint Misbehavin' is jam-packed with good lyrics-maybe too jam-packed with good lyrics. It's difficult to say, because in many instances so many words are squeezed onto each measure of music that whatever is being said on stage disintegrates by the time it reaches the audience. This mattered less on opening night, when there was a fair bit of screaming by roommates in the audience, than it might on night two, three or 26. In the Pudding's tradition, however, one pun begets another, and so on, and so on.
When the personable director of the Shady Hawkins Funeral Home, Barry-Joe Luvdwuns (Andrew Gardner), asks if anyone would like a beer-or maybe a "stiff" drink-he sets up a word-play that mentions the "grave" situation, points out that whether Denuar will be displayed in an open casket "remains to be seen," and argues for cremation as an eternal-maintenance option "with no bones about it."
These are real groaners, which is to say, exactly what Pudding audiences are after. Unfortunately, Saint Misbehavin' doesn't deliver the inside Harvard humor of past theatricals. The obligatory Wellesley gag-which I wouldn't give away if it weren't so lame-comes when the evil Nurse Dwyer threatens to send Emmanuelle Leighbor (Carl "B.J." Fox)-the subtly played, airheaded nurse who elsewhere calls flowers "the most beautiful things on God's earth"-back to a certain Route 30 finishing school.
Since the Pudding stage is so small that there are always two too many players, and since the action is non-stop, any show's most memorable performances are those of the actors with the largest polyurethane chest plates or the dresses cut furthest up a thatched thigh. There just isn't time for niceties like character development.
This year's no exception. Blackstone's Barb Dwyer, with Wicked-Wanda breasts and sinister snarl, is a formidable presence. Jason Tomarken, as Denuar, knows he's playing a stock character and plays with enthusiasn. But Michael Starr, as the billionaire's sixth wife, Libby Doe, turns in a-dare I say sensual?-rendition that few performers could manage. Although my only qualification to judge the performers is a stint covering the Theater of the Absurd that is Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Dianne Ferratwinkie (Maurice "Mo" Rocca) is the clear stand-out among Denuar's daughters. Rocca makes his character something more than a Jewish-American princess with a Snuffleupagus physique-he makes the character an audience favorite. Eric Morris's Maura Listic is a cross between Katherine Hepburn and a fireplug, a sawed-off priss with a delightful upper-crust twang.
The best performance of the evening is turned in by Jon Tolins as Angelo D'Ethe. As an incorporeal spirit, Tolins slides through the action all evening, providing more than a few scene-stealing bits and a constant, classy counterpoint to the bawdier action at center stage.
The staging and the technical staff had to be pretty strong last night since the program listed a slew of people paid to do such things right. The backdrops, though, were so bad as to draw attention to themselves. Nurse Dwyer's office is recognizable as an office only because there's a desk in the middle of the stage. Confusing matters is a backdrop showing a corseted, bare-buttocked nymph straddling a column surrounded by almost-recognizable office paraphernalia suspended in mid-air.
THIS YEAR'S show no doubt will be well-remembered. The older Old Boys on hand last night were calling it "good fun" and other such things. They seemed pretty sincere over champagne cocktails during intermission when they said Saint Misbehavin' was one of the best Pudding shows in a while. It's unquestionably a return to tradition after the theatricals attempt at innovation last year.
Last year's show, Bye, Bye Verdi, anticipated real-life news by about 12 months. It pitted Holly R. Thanthou, a fiery, flock-bilking television evangelist against assorted others bent on exposing his less-than-upstanding life, or at least that's what people who saw it say. It was, according to those people, not a crowd-pleaser.
By contrast, Saint Misbehavin' resorts to tradition: a plot whose sole purpose is to stay out of the way of the all-important puns, lyrics and can-can lines. From the audience level, there's no question that this is what Pudding shows are supposed to be about.
From 14 Plympton St., just a few blocks from audience level, only a long hour and a half after the final curtain and last champagne, Saint Misbehavin's confidence in the Pudding's tried formula is a little troubling. After all, in what does the show place its confidence? Not the entertainment value of men whose lacy underwear peeks out from under their slinky dresses. That would make for a show that wouldn't bomb in Poughkeepsie-it never would have gotten there in the first place.
The idea of men in women's clothes ceased to amuse a long while ago. But the yearly Pudding Theatrical is based on the proposition that that just doesn't matter--not as long, anyway, as the tennis ball halves are taped on the chests of the right young men. When the show varies, say, as it did last year with its alleged cautious steps towards relevance, it becomes a play with men in high-cut dresses and everyone becomes a bit uncomfortable.
The Hasty Pudding show works this year less to the credit of any individual writer or performer, but more because of all the Pudding shows that have gone before and this one's similarity to them. It need not be seen as itself because the eyes can glaze over and let it pass as a familiar spring rite. It affirms things as they have been since 1824 or some such year, which around Harvard is pretty satisfying. But are things really the same? Do we want them to be?
So it's winter and you're at Harvard. And there is not better--in fact there is no other--reason to see a Pudding show. This one is about as good as they come. If you go, you're bound to enjoy it. But please don't look too closely-or at least don't hold me responsible if you do. Because you know all those slinky women on stage? They're really not women at all. They're men! And what's so wonderfully entertaining in that? Three cheers for our gang.