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According to tradition, and tradition is very important in this sort of thing, one does not presume to have critical opinions about the Hasty Pudding Show. You go to it in resplendent dress, get slightly tipsy, see your friends and make sure they see you, cheer lustily for the chorus "girls" to show more thigh, and leave reassured that the Pudding is still the Pudding even though Harvard may be going to a democratic hell.
The Pudding Show, now in its 116th reincarnation, is an institution, and the polite and learned do not judge Institutions: they respect them. But because this Institution is cleverly disguised as an original undergraduate musical filled with satirical and incisive comments on our times, I can't resist the temptation to treat it as real theatre.
And as theatre, William Had the Words! has problems, the book, the first act, the actors' enunciations, and some of the dialogue come quickly to mind. This is all most unfortunate, because some high carat diamonds are buried in the acres of clay.
Most of the gems were synthesized on the fertile typewriter of Timothy S. Mayer, who made an obviously heroic effort to inject class into the show. His lyrics are carefully worked, although not labored, and he often uses genuine wit instead of the tired sex euphemisms that are so at home in a production of this sort.
Mayer had to fight against a ludicrous book by George W.S. Trow, however, and he lost at least as many battles as he won. Mumbling actors sabotaged even these victories in last night's performance.
The book was reworked several times, some major revisions coming after the program had gone to press. Director David Tihmar would be wise to continue rewriting.
As it stands now, the story is a clumsy spoof of the television industry. Mrs. Biltmore St. Regis (Joseph C. Bright), owner of the St. Regis lipstick enterprises, is looking for a show that will sell her "lip-smacking good" products. An aide, Peter Papp (DeCourcy E. McIntosh), suggests updating Shakespeare, and a Harvard professor (Harry H. Lapham) is backmailed into changing the words of the Bard into television lard. The professor has secretly written a titillating account of Harvard life, The Student Body.
An aging madame of the theatre, Dierdre Dauphine (Bancroft Littlefield), is recruited to give the show a star, though Mrs. St. Regis is sure her son Algonquin (William Hitzig) and daughter Mayflower (J. Patterson McBaine) are "obviously better."
Naturally, the timid professor goes wild and falls in love with the star, rejecting the passionate advances of Mrs. St. Regis. The children also have their fun, an awful show is produced, and everyone concludes that "Shakespeare Can Do Without Us" in the final production number. They are quite right.
The plot is probably no worse than that of any musical, but it fails in its most important task--to provide settings for the songs. The best numbers have practically no connections with the story.
The songs of Tony Corbett and Joel Cohen are not potential classics, but some of them, aided by Mayer's lyrics, are corking good. Corbett's title song. "William Had the Words!" had people humming at intermission, and his parody in song of the old musical No, No, Nanook (which features the magnificent ditty "Hark, hark, hark, hark, the call of the arctic") is brilliant.
Scholarly Joel Cohen is responsible for the liveliest moment of the evening with his dandy "Yeah!", a Beatles-like rock-and-roll bit that is remarkably true to this art form yet not cliched.
The major kudos go, however, to Mr. Lapham and Director Tihmar. Lapham's resourceful acting and acceptable singing compensate for a good deal of mediocrity and make all his songs successful. The other principals, Mr. Bright and Mr. Littlefield, have their moments, but not consistently enough.
Mr. Tihmar must be something of a genius. He has enabled the production numbers to overcome musical, lyrical, and logical problems with superb choreography, and his pace works furiously to combat the tedium of the story. Francis Mahard's sets and Lawrence Whitman's lighting are completely professional, and Lewis Smith carries through the visual excellence with ingenious costumes.
But despite all the dramatic difficulties, everyone in the cast seemed to be having a good time, and the audience got what it paid for: an evening of undergraduate fun in the old tradition. Musical director Joe Raposo banged his piano gayly, probably knowing the notes were trite but just what everyone wanted. The chorus kicked itself into exhaustion, and old grads chuckled themselves red in the face. You may, too, if you like this kind of foolishness.
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