Review - Hooray For What! & Steel Magnolias

You wouldn't expect a 1937 Broadway musical that satirized American profiteering from wartime rumblings in Europe and was written to showcase the unique comedy talents of "The Perfect Fool" Ed Wynn to be especially playable in the year 2008, but The Medicine Show, on their tiny stage way out west on W. 52nd Street, do a bang-up job with Hooray For What!

With a bouncy score by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg (which introduced the hit, "Down With Love") and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse that frequently detours into jokes and comedy bits that have little to do with the story, Hooray For What! is typical of the kind of lively political and social satire that emerged from a Broadway that needed something fresh and contemporary in order to compete with talking pictures and movie musicals. A night out at big hit like Of Thee I Sing, I'd Rather Be Right, Pins and Needles or Hooray For What! was a bit like attending a taping of Saturday Night Live. And as it turned out, the world outside of Times Square was providing new spoof-worthy targets daily.

Ed Wynn played Chuckles, a rather silly chemist from the All-American town of Sprinkle, Indiana, whose experiments create various gasses to control the worms inhabiting his apple orchard. Hearing of his success ("This gas has been known to revive the dead. We have a bid on it from the Republican Party."), ambitious local boy, Breezy, builds a munitions factory in Sprinkle. Certain that ammunition sales will skyrocket because The League of Nations has called for a peace conference, Breezy and Chuckles head for Geneva where everyone wants the formula for his new death gas, but Chuckles keeps that secret hidden and would much prefer to sell them his brotherly love gas. War breaks out, of course ("They're shooting anyone in uniform! On the casualty list are 4,000 doormen."), but soon all comes to a ridiculously comical resolution.

Coming from a time when few musicals were thought of as lasting works worthy of publishing and preservation, Hooray For What! was pieced together from various archival sources by Medicine Show producers Barbara Vann and the late James Barbosa prior to their first production of the show in 1983 and the company is certainly to be commended for their efforts in restoring a part of our musical theatre heritage. And though the singing and dancing skills in director Vann's mounting are generally of the beginner level, the production is loaded with enjoyable performances by a cast that bubbles with musical comedy brio.

With a shock of Brillo-textured red hair, a chirpy, nasal voice and a sunny face as comically expressive as Harpo Marx, Mike Lesser turns in a rip-roaring performance as Chuckles without a whiff of Ed Wynn. He's especially funny when reacting to the audience's lack of response on occasions when dated jokes about forgotten subjects fly over everyone's head. Also a hoot, playing the boss' romantic interest, is the daffy Beth Griffen, whose child-like speaking voice and awkward grace occasionally lets loose with a wildly pseudo-Wagnerian soprano. James Eden is full of capitalist smarm as Breezy and Adrienne Hurd scores plenty of laughs as a vampy, multi-accented spy so publicity conscious she has a press agent.

Joel Handorff's set and Uta Bekaia's costumes may be budget-conscious but they strike a cheery chord and while Dieter Riesle's choreography leans towards the basics, he and music director Jake Lloyd (on piano) has the winning company performing with spunk and enthusiasm while director Vann keeps the comedy brisk and neatly-executed.

Hooray for what? Hooray for Medicine Show!

Photo by John Quilty: James Eden, Beth Griffith and Mike Lesser

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Robert Harling's 1987 comedy/drama, Steel Magnolias, is one of those plays with an effectiveness that sneaks up on you. The entire first act, set in Truvy's beauty salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana (Where the credo is, "There is no such thing as natural beauty."), is packed with solid laughs from start to finish ("When it comes to suffering she's right up there with Elizabeth Taylor.") with only hints of the plot that will take firmer shape after intermission. And when that plot turns tragic, you come to realize that through the laughter, you've invested emotionally in the six southern belles who meet every Saturday to get their hair done and talk about recipes, beauty pageants and neighborhood gossip. Then just when one of the characters exposes the open wound of her grief in a heart-shattering scene, Harling dares to toss in a joke. It's a good one. And though it doesn't make everything better, it starts the healing. And that strength to joke while facing your worst heartache is part of what Steel Magnolias, now getting a top-notch production at The Paper Mill Playhouse under the direction of Karen Carpenter, is all about.

The story begins on the wedding day of Shelby (Kelly Sullivan), a young diabetic woman who has been warned by doctors that her body is unlikely to hold up if she ever became pregnant. Though her groom has assured her that he's okay with her condition, Shelby has her reasons for considering taking the risk. Her mother, M'Lynn (Monique Fowler), has brought her to Truvy's to make her hair just right for the big day. And though the bride may seem to take girlishness to its ridiculous extremes at times (A lover of pink, Shelby has chosen "bashful" and "blush" as her wedding colors.) she also carries a fierce determination to make her life what she wants it to be. The two actresses do a marvelous job of playing the difficulties in adapting to the changes in their mother/daughter relationship.

Playing the salon's other regulars are Kelly Bishop, who quips the play's sharpest zingers as the mayor's widow, Claree, and Beth Fowler (no relation to Monique), who makes the crotchety Ouiser one of those people you love despite her perpetually dour disposition.

With the play's four scenes spread out over the course of two and a half years, it's Kate Wetherhead's Annelle, the newly trained hairdresser, who makes the most drastic character changes, going from a frightened new girl in town in a bad marriage to a confident woman whose source of confidence makes the others uncomfortable. A versatile actress who excels at realistic comedy, Wetherhead makes the transitions smooth and believable.

If there's a misfire, it's Carpenter's decision to make Charlotte Booker's Truvy seem a spoof of Dolly Parton, who played the role on film. Hair and wig designer Mark Adam Rampier and costume designer David Murin, who give a spot-on realism to the 1980s styles of the other ladies, present Booker in a flamboyantly large blonde wig and splashes of gaudy neon colors. Not really digging into the earthy soul of the woman, the actress seems out of place among the others.

Set designer Hugh Landwehr provides a busy but homey atmosphere for Truvy's garage turned salon and pushes the lip of the stage over the theatre's orchestra pit, helping the audience to connect with this intimate play in the large auditorium.

"I'd rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a whole lifetime of nothing special," says Shelby. Paper Mill's Steel Magnolias is two hours and twenty minutes of wonderful.

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