KITSCH meets culture. Free love meets repressed sexual mores. Leather meets lace. Polyester double-knit meets silk brocade.
No, it's not a special transvestite episode of Scooby Doo in the Haunted Gothic Mansion. It's the 142nd Hasty Pudding Theatricals show--"Suede Expectations."
The show, written by juniors Mo Rocca and Oren Izenberg, tells the story of Belle Bottoms (Peter Ferren), whose "pad is going condo" so she has to come up with the "dinero" or she'll lose her "spread." Belle brings her '70s gang of friends back to 1875 in order to find her great-great-great-etc. grandmother Lady Ophelia Bottoms and retrieve the long-lost family fortune.
Rocca's character--a Jewish mother/mystic named Greta Grippe--takes the gang back in time with some very amusing incantations and strange body gyrations. They arrive on Mary Tyler Moors (no, I'm not kidding), the site of the Bottoms family manor, and proceed to further confuse an already complex family crisis.
Ophelia Bottoms (Jason Tomarken) is engaged to marry Sir Cumference (you guessed it; he's fat), although Ophelia hates her round suitor. Meanwhile her aunt, Lady Andatramp (Michael Starr) is plotting for her own daughter, Jane Eyrehead (Glenn Kaiser) to catch the rich bachelor. But Sir Cumference (Daniel Zelman) is only rich because he drove Ophelia's brother, Captain Acaje (Andrew Dietderich), crazy and so stands to inherit the Bottoms' family fortune and estate.
It all would have worked out, I'm sure, if it hadn't been for those meddling kids. But Ophelia falls in love as soon as she sets eyes on Lee Shersoot (John Claflin), and Belle realizes that she won't be born if her ancestor marries Sir Cumference because the locket she inherited says Ophelia's husband had the initials "L.S." (You in the reading public probably already figured out that L.S. stands for Lee Shersoot, but it takes the characters a lot longer.)
In the meantime, several of the other '70s freaks fall in love with their Victorian counterparts. Barnaby Wild (Greg Schaffer), a.k.a. Harley, falls for the empty-headed but incredibly well-endowed Jane. And Areola Derby, the Puerto-Rican roller derby queen (Sherwin Parikh) begins a frollicking, rolling romance with the Andatramp manservant, Hugh Loser (Bart St. Clair).
THIS is Pudding theater at its best. The actors seem to enjoy the show and the chance to ham it up with a genuinely funny script, and their excitement is infectious. This is not just a two-hour excuse to show a lot of men waltzing around in fake breasts and fancy costumes. Instead, it is an amusing, original--while typically derivative--show, with catchy music (written by Larry O'Keefe) and hilarious lyrics.
Rocca and Izenberg's writing talent is best displayed in their jokes about the Victorian era and in their excellent lyrics. The Victorian characters introduce themselves in a Charleston-esque number called "Taste Makes Chaste" ("Birds may do it and so may bees, but we're shut firmly at the knees"). And when Belle goes through a crisis as she faces the fact that she may never be born, she sings a punny, existential song with questions like, "So if I fell in a forest would you hear me?"
Despite its energy, the initial number is disappointing, as is the whole '70s scene. The writers seem to think that the '70s are funny in and of themselves, which is to some extent true, but not enough to warrant not including a real joke for the first 15 minutes. But as soon as the gang heads. back in time, the show picks up and stays basically hilarious to the end.
The "70s characters do seem to have a liberating effect on the Pudding itself (as well as giving the writers a chance to make wonderfully reminiscent '70s references throughout, including everyone's favorite Brady Bunch line, "Oh, my nose.") This year's show dispenses with several annoying traditions of years past, and will hopefully prove a trendsetter for future productions.
For instance, the traditional pun-runs this year are short and actually advance the plot. The audience still groans, but the Shakespeare puns and the Cole Porter allusions in particular are very funny and even challenging. In addition, the writers have dispensed with the boring and often offensive pairing-off of the entire cast at the very end of the show. In fact, there are actually male characters who are friends with male characters and female ones, all without unnecessary homophobic references. The Pudding may yet move into the 1990s, or the '70s at least.
And, despite a few unrelated, silly interruptions and interventions by that favorite Pudding presence deus ex machina (though it's not allowed in the Andatramp household), the plot stays constant almost to the end, rather than sort of crumping out before intermission.
The plot does not, however, manage to explain the closing French Can-Can kickline and Wizard of Oz sequence, which have literally nothing to do with each other, the plot, the Victorian era or the '70s. (My guess is that the writers associate the 1939 movie with their childhood, and so with the '70s period as a whole.) But you can't change every stupid tradition at once, and this fresh, fun production has more going for it than any Pudding show I've seen.
THE actors are all good and lively on stage. Many of the '70s characters do not have the chance to expand on their overly stereotypical roles. But there are several standouts who literally make the show.