|The Concord Journal|
Key elements in place but Players' production needs work for lift-off
By Duncan Nelson
There are a number of magical moments in the latest Concord Player's production. Two of these moments, interestingly, are at the beginning and end.
The evening opens with immense vigor, with spirited self-assurance and striking effect. The eye has already been captivated by the set: a serried, varied skyline of New York City in the background and not just in outline. The facades are filled with garrulous detail. So brisk is the orchestra's attack - Gene Shwalb sets the tone with his sharply punctuated direction - that the audience's collective foot starts a-tapping and the set seems to shimmer into still richer and more garish life. Magic.
And the ending, which has been modulated into a curtain call, has everyone dressed sharp (in attractive red and black ensembles) and dancing sharp - completely letting go into the fun and frolic of it all. Magic again, and the audience began applauding for a show quite other than that which they had been somewhat tepidly attending.
In between there is very little magic, at least very little that approaches the pitch of intensity reached at opening and close, and I want to suggest how this situation might be remedied.
First, it can be remedied. Phyllis Walters (as Sonia Walsk) showed, in certain scenes, a radience of person and a richness of voice that is more than enough to convincingly inspire songs and the songwriter, along with audience after audience. When she does "I Still Believe in Love" in the studio, in a delicious metaphor of spectacle taking off her headphones to show she's no longer "working," she earns at least a catch of the heart, and in my case a shiver down the spine as well. The song comes through her without a trace of the protective tariffs (Neil's Particular brand of Simony) she has been levying on her wares since the beginning, those rat-a-tat putdowns that, in gagging her, have been gagging the show as well.
And Michael Willhoite (as Vernon Gersch) showed, particularly in some of his Second Act scenes, a relaxed charm, a softening of the naughty-little-boy presence, that gives real point (as opposed to the false point of his "musical accomplishments") to Sonia's attraction to him. In his overcoat, with a cane, he's gotten at once handsomer and winsomer, and for the first time since he belted out "They're Playing My Song" in Act Once we see someone really there behind all that pat patina of patter.
What to do? Drop all thought of "developing the character." This show absolutely depends upon the daffiness and dizziness, the innate likability of its leads.
To the heart of my critique, and to the nuts and bolts of my coaching. What would have the show take off would be for everyone to go to school on the pianist (and rehersal pianist) Julie Roberts; go to school on her in the sence of how she uses and feels and gets off on the music. I had noticed her from the beginning, and when the orchestra struck up at the beginning of Act Two, I really watched her. She's physical, intensely so. She shakes and tosses her head, arches and braces her shoulders, rocks and reaises her body; and if she had flipped the book rather than the page on one memorable turn it would have fetched up well on the other side of Walden Street.
The show is luck in its supporting bodies as well as in its principal ones. The three men (Bill Brown, Ed Knights, Arne Nystrom) and the three women (Lynn Devitt, Faith Lucozzi, Naomi Meyer) who serve as augmented and augmenting voices do some nice choral work, particularly the men's barbershop harmonizing in "Fill in The Words." And they do some competent footwork as well. Meyer is an absolutely visual smash amidst a thoroughly attractive company, whose costuming must have demended the sorceress in Patricia Butcher (the outfitting of alter egos in triplicate!)
A few selected kudos. The lighting was uniformly intelligent and on cue. The orchestra was splendid (from where I sat I could see Ed Krauss on bass and Russell Leach on drums, as joyously and disciplinedly abandoned as Julie on piano) - give these guys a raise! There was real professionalism in the management of props (three-wheel chairs!) and of make-up and - I repeat myself, emphatically - of set design and construction. The choreography, though as I have suggested, the dancers need to get up the final-number, is expertly and expansively conceived.
In conclusion, "for now" the show is a solid B, but ready to blast off - Vernon's "ego, passion, and skepticism" and Sonia's "candor, energy, and enthusiasm" are poised between latency and laughing.
It may be that the vapidity and volume of Neil Simon's unfocused gags constitute too heavy a weight to lift off, but I don't think so.
Director William Signalis and producters Charles Brown, Peggy Elliott, and Mikki Lipsey have already got this thing well under way.
The beginning and end prove that rollicking infectiousness cancarry the day. There's enough beneath the Simonize job to give audiences a real spin at speed.
Rev'er up, you guys! I'll come by and check the tachometer sometime later in the run.
Duncan Nelson is a Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts/Boston. He lives in Sudbury and has performed with the Lincoln Players, the Sudbury Players, and the Sudbury Savoyards.