Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Real Thing Beats the Parody

Last summer I went on a rant over why the efforts of The Drowsy Chaperone to parody the good-old-fashioned Broadway musical had turned out so dismally. Last night, watching the penultimate production of High Spirits, a musical adaptation of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, I realized that a sincere effort to revive one of the old chestnuts can trump just about any contemporary attempt to parody the source. 42nd Street Moon, the company that has devoted itself to such revivals, actually called their production a "staged concert," which certainly made for truth in advertising. There was no room for an orchestra pit in the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco; so all the music was supplied by a pianist and wind player (flute, clarinet, alto sax) at the back of the stage (with the surface of the piano sometimes serving as part of the set). There was no short-changing of costumes; but both sets and properties where clearly products of some ingenious made-do thinking. All the secondary roles were double-cast; and, as might be suspected, there was no overwhelming chorus or dance ensemble.

Truth be told, the musical was not much of a success. On the other hand it was competing with the likes of Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof; and, while the book was faithful enough to Coward's wit to earn his approval, 1964 was a time when such wit was out of fashion. Furthermore, efforts to make the original script a bit more up-to-date now sound even more dated than the original. Nevertheless, this was a musical that honored Coward, rather than parodying him; and that sense of honor shone through in the modestly-produced effort by 42nd Street Moon. I suppose the sincerity of the effort had a lot to do with the energy that all of the performers put into their work, not to mention the channeling of that energy into an overall sense of pace that had been so sorely lacking in the Broadway touring company that brought The Drowsy Chaperone to San Francisco.

Sincerity is probably the secret sauce of 42nd Street Moon. Their mission seems to be to haul out old musicals, most of which have been forgotten (many for what seemed like good reason). With their modest resources, they then serve up these chestnuts for retrospective delectation. I have now seen two of their productions. I can remember nothing about the first other than it having been by Cole Porter with one character clearly played by Jimmy Durante in the original. However, if the details were not memorable, the experience at the time was delightful; and it was easy to recall that delight while experiencing it again last night. If nothing else the 42nd Street Moon repertoire makes for a refreshing complement to the Gilbert and Sullivan canon.

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