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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.
As Tomarken has played a man in the past two Pudding shows, it is somewhat surprising to see him playing a woman, particularly one that's supposed to be the heartthrob of the show. He carries off his new persona with grace and humor. His "Wilhemina Wordsworth" character is melodramatic yet snide, and Tomarken plays her to the hilt. And his excellent rendition of the gospel tune "I'm Getting Married and I'm Mourning" is definitely one of the high points of the show.
Starr pulls off yet another fabulous performance as Lady Andatramp. Admittedly, his character has the best lines in the show, but Starr goes even further than the material with his talented delivery. He also does and impressive job with the difficult torch song, "Love on the Rocks (Hurts like the Dickens)." His portrayal of Andatramp is reminiscent of Bette Davis's Margo Channing in All About Eve-- a tough, jaded bitch with a lot of spunk and a warm heart. In addition, he shows off his usual dancing prowess, despite the unusual impediments of a tight corset and long petticoats and skirts.
Kaiser's portrayal of Jane Eyrehead had the potential to be insufferably annoying (Kaiser gives new meaning to the word "vapid"--it is unbelieveable that he can keep that expression on his face for the whole two-plus hours). But he turns out to be funny and a very good singer, as shown in his duet with Harley, "Leather and Lace."
Parikh's Arrola Derby is hilarious. The Puerto Rican accent is very funny, and he moves away from the totally spacey persona he played in last year's Whiskey Business to take a fairly central role in this year's show. His roller-skating duet with St. Clair--"I Got Hugh, Babe"--was fantastic, although I was a bit concerned that one or both of the actors would end up sprawled in the orchestra pit.
St. Clair is a great addition to the Pudding cast. His strong voice and hilariously obsequious Hugh Loser ("Here I am, miss, ready for degradation and humiliation") were an important part of the show's appeal.
Finally, Andrew Dietderich displays a strong voice in the Russian-ish song about his predicament--"I am nutty as an old cashew (Bless you)." It is unfortunate that his part allows him little opportunity to do anything but yell and scream a lot.
Two offensive characters did detract from the show's overall funny tone. John Blackstone's Freida B. Youanme played on every stupid and disturbing stereotype of feminism, from gratuitous references to bra-burning to his very long underarm hair, which Tomarken brushes at one point. This is not Blackstone's fault--he gives a very strong performance--but rather a problem with the character as it is written. This is the kind of character that gives the Pudding its bad name. (Although I must admit that I was at least as upset by the audience's happy acceptance of every enraging joke as I was angered by the jokes themselves.)
In addition, the Harry Palms (Glenn Kessler) character is completely unnecessary and really disgusting. Endless references to masturbation do not add to the show's appeal--they serve only to annoy or disgust where another character might have added. Kessler's Dracula look, however, is very funny and he does the best he could with a completely repulsive role.
THE uniformly strong perfomances are enhanced by the usual great choreography. Karen Pisani Pastore has the amazing gift of making even the most clumsy actors appear to be almost dancing in the musical numbers. The Ukranian dance sequences in the Russian number and the Victorians' non-Victorian "Taste Makes Chaste" particularly stand out.
But the production highlights are the costumes and backdrops. Craig Sonnenberg let his imagination go wild with the costumes for both eras. The Claflin brothers, for instance, sport powder-blue polyester pants suits with collars that reach the shoulders and mustard-yellow hip-hugging bell-bottoms with hideous shirts open to the waste. All the '70s outfits are finished off with perfectly garish accessories and amazingly high and ugly platform shoes (including an incredible pair of ruby platform sandals for Belle-turned-Dorothy).
The Victorian costumes are even more wonderfully fanciful, with huge leg-o'-mutton sleeves and artificial wasp waists. Starr's character is initially decked out in a purple and hot-pink number with a flattering chignon wig and a huge hat complete with pink bird and huge ostrich feathers. Kaiser has feathers and flowers literally stemming from his hair, or possibly from his Eyrehead.
But Peter Miller's Victorian backdrops are particularly striking. Here is the benefit of the Pudding tradition and popularity: it brings in enough money to afford plenty of extravagent sets. Beautiful scenes that include the Gothic manor both inside and out are embellished with small but impressive set pieces, such as a Romeo-and-Juliet style balcony with louvered doors. The audience literally gasps with each new set that comes down.
THE production does have its troubles. The large numbers are less than impressive--the words to "Tacky Days Are Here Again" and "Suede Expectations" were half incomprehensible, half silly. The Pudding always has trouble getting 16 people onto its tiny stage, but this year it seems to be particularly difficult.
The kickline is disappointing, especially since the show itself is so much better than usual. Not only does the Can-Can bear no relation to the rest of the show (I won't even try to explain how it fits in, since Rocca and Izenberg don't), but the dancing is somewhat uninspired.
The band also had some problems. Half the time it overpowered the singers, and at other times it was hard to hear. This is just one of several technical problems which plague the production. Hopefully the set and props crews will be able to sort out the problems after a few performances.
In addition, someone got carried away with the wonders of black lights. While the strobe light and disco ball were funny and certainly reminiscent of the '70s, the black lights had nothing to do with anything and yet were used in every possible place from the overture to the kickline.
These embellishments were just plain boring after the initial oohs and ahs. and they tended to take away from otherwise good numbers (for example, the white glove fiasco in the midst of "I'm Getting Married"). Also, I really can't think of anything more heinous than day-glo pink and yellow Can-Can outfits that turn bright orange under the strange glow of the black lights.
But, in the end, the plot is much more interesting than that of any hockey game, and the costumes are certainly more flattering. And, though hockey season is in danger of ending woefully early, the Pudding is just starting. So, whether you're a committed Pudding fan or a somewhat frightened newcomer, "Suede Expectations" is too good to miss. Trust me, Nick.
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