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What Ever Happened to My Plot?

How appropriate that the sought after mystery man in The Lyric Stage Company's current production of Adrift in Macao is named McGuffin, the moniker that Alfred Hitchcock gave to any meaningless plot device that serves merely as an excuse for colorful characters to take the spotlight and become intertwined. On stage in the Boston area right now are three lighter-than-air parodies that, either happily or sadly, live or die by their emphasis on style over substance: the aforementioned Christopher Durang/Peter Melnick musical at the Lyric through February 2; the one-man murder mystery Antoine Feval at the Stoneham Theatre through January 27; and Live Nation/Broadway Across America's national tour of Spamalot at the Opera House in Boston, also through January 27.

Too bad none of these only mildly entertaining trifles are able to fulfill their higher theatrical purposes and find their comic grails. All three lack the sharp concept and madcap energy needed to keep audiences from noticing that their throw-away subject matter doesn't really, well, matter.

Adrift in Macao

Book and lyrics by Christopher Durang; music by Peter Melnick; director and choreographer, Stephen Terrell; musical director, Jonathan Goldberg; scenic designer, J. Michael Griggs; costume designer, David Costa-Cabral; lighting designer, Scott Pinkney

Cast in order of appearance:
Lureena, Aimee Doherty; Rick Shaw, Brendan McNab; Mitch, Ariel Heller; Tempura, Austin Ku; Corrina, Kathy St. George; Trench Coat Chorus, Kerri Jill Garbis, Neal Richard Lee

Performances: Now through February 2, Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon St., Boston
Box Office: 617-585-5678 or www.lyricstage.com

Spoofing the film noir of Casablanca with a large dollop of Charlie Chan thrown in, Adrift in Macao is a lightweight musical comedy that, an hour after you've seen it, is about as forgettable as one from Column B. Christopher Durang's clever one-liners buoy this 90-minute one-act pastiche while Durang and Peter Melnick's fourteen olio-style songs range from humorous to bland to downright annoying.

A Humphrey Bogart-like American expatriate named Mitch (Ariel Heller), in pursuit of the nefarious Mr. McGuffin who has framed him for a woman's murder, stumbles into the Surf 'n' Turf Nightclub and Gambling Casino (can this café be any more Américain?) owned by another U.S. expatriate, Rick Shaw (Brendan McNab). There he falls in love (sort of) with the enigmatic down-on-her-luck chanteuse Lureena (Aimee Doherty), fends off the advances of the sex-crazed and opium addicted torch singer Corrina (Kathy St. George), and suffers the barely masked contempt of the quintessentially inscrutable Asian Tempura (Austin Ku), whose explanation of how he was named earns one of the show's biggest laughs. Will Mitch track down his nemesis and clear his name? Will Rick, Lureena, and Corrina find happiness? Will Tempura ever reveal his true feelings? Who cares. The point of the show is that there is no point. It's all about having a good time at the expense of a formulaic film genre.

The problem is, the good times don't consistently roll. Insipid songs like "Mambo Malaysian" and "Ticky Ticky Tock" douse rather than heat up the action and only detract from the more clever, moody numbers like Lureena's introductory "In a Foreign City (in a slinky dress)" and smoldering love-hate duet with Mitch called "Sparks." Even in these smarter, more evocative numbers, however, the cast falls short of achieving the degree of sultry cynicism necessary to root us squarely in the 1940s film noir malaise of Bogey, Bergman, Dietrich and Bacall.

As Lureena, Aimee Doherty sings well but is too contemporary in her delivery. Some of her mannerisms are more Valley Girl than City of Angels. Ari Heller more or less captures the unlucky-in-love melancholy of his hard-boiled expatriate Mitch, but at times he misses the comedy of spoofing his own ennui. As the morally bankrupt and self-serving opportunist Rick Shaw, Brendan McNab (filling in for the injured Paul D. Farwell) is too broad, making his deliberately presentational fourth wall breaking "Rick's Song" too similar to the rest of his performance.

Kathy St. George does a better job of creating a true character, making her Corrina a somewhat deranged and slightly scary bad girl who wavers between a street tough drug-seeking nymphomaniac and a quivering, insecure girl who just wants to be loved. It is Austin Ku as the always smiling Tempura, however, who steals the show from his self-absorbed American interlopers. The seeming model of congeniality and subservience, Ku unleashes a devilishly sinister and gleeful laugh when least expected, suggesting that there's more beneath his impenetrable façade than meets the eye.

Stephen Terrell's direction and choreography are at times amusing but uninspired and lacking any sense of cohesion or exalted style. Music by Jonathan Goldberg is both jazzy and fun, tinged with just the right mix of suspense and Asian influences. Sets by J. Michael Griggs suggest an appropriately seedy Chinese nightclub circa 1940, using bamboo flooring and beaded curtains to evoke the era and locale. Scott Pinkney's lighting creates the necessary mood of mystery during the chase sequences, but the more romantic interludes could have used a softer, smokier touch.

Adrift in Macao is a bit like overcooked chop suey. An occasional piece of tasty meat floats to the surface in a sea of soggy vegetables.

Antoine Feval

Written by Chris Gibbs; directed by Weylin Symes; set designer, Richard Chambers; lighting designer, Scott Clyve; sound designer, David Wilson; costume designer, Joanna E. Murphy

Starring Tom Souhrada as Barnaby Gibbs et al

Performances: Now through January 27, Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main St., Stoneham
Box Office: 781-279-2200 or www.stonehamtheatre.org

It's fascinating to consider that a play with as much exposition as Chris Gibbs' one-man mystery marathon Antoine Feval could end up saying so little after 90 uninterrupted minutes. As dense with clues, red herrings, plot twists, and arrogant analyses as any Sherlock Holmes novel ever written, the play unfathomably fails to engage at almost every turn.

Perhaps it's director Weylin Symes' attempt to turn what originated as improvisational street theater into a scripted and precisely blocked play that has spelled the show's demise. It could also be the miscasting of the obviously talented but all too intelligent and refined Tom Souhrada as the bumbling innocent Barnaby Gibbs, a sweet but gullible turn-of-the-century mystery buff who unwittingly becomes a Dr. Watson-like partner in crime to the thief posing as Detective Antoine Feval.

British playwright, street performer and stand-up comic Chris Gibbs originated the role of his alter-ego Barnaby and earned rave reviews for his cleverness and comic genius on display. The Stoneham Theatre production, however, is staid and lumbering compared to what one can only imagine was spontaneous and frenetic when performed as a living, interactive organism.

One has to feel sorry for Souhrada. He's working 110 percent on stage in Stoneham, portraying Gibbs, Feval, and an assortment of other characters both male and female, including victims of the smooth-talking Feval and a rather bloated Scotland Yard detective. Jokes that he is trying hard to sell fall flat, and vain attempts to engage the audience don't fare much better. Even a knock-down, drag-out brawl he wages with himself comes across as forced and unfunny.

The problem ultimately seems to rest with the fact that Symes and, by default, Souhrada take the material far too seriously. The plot device of trying to find the culprit who stole, and the whereabouts of, the priceless "eye of Zanobia" (there's that McGuffin again) doesn't matter. The madcap cat and mouse interplay between the obviously nefarious Feval and the obstinately clueless Gibbs does.

Richard Chambers' jungle gym of a set suggests the acrobatic contortions that Souhrada will go through during the course of the evening. Unfortunately, his performance never delivers on that promise.

You have to wonder what a true clown – perhaps Chris Gibbs himself – would have done with this material. But that's a mystery that Stoneham audiences will never be lucky enough to solve.

Spamalot

Book and lyrics by Eric Idle; music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle; directed by Mike Nichols; choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; set and costume design by Tim Hatley; lighting design by Hugh Vanstone; sound design by Acme Sound Partners; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; special effects design by Gregory Meeh; projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy; orchestrations by Larry Hochman; music arrangements by Glen Kelly

Cast in order of appearance:
Historian, Not Dead Fred, French Guard, Minstrel, Price Herbert, Christopher Sutton; Mayor, Patsy, Guard, Jeff Dumas; King Arthur, Michael Siberry; Sir Robin, Guard 1, Brother Maynard, James Beaman; Sir Lancelot, The French Taunter, Knight of Ni, Tim the Enchanter, Patrick Heusinger; Sir Dennis Galahad, The Black Knight, Prince Herbert's Father, Ben Davis; Dennis' Mother, Sir Bedevere, Concorde, Christopher Gurr; The Lady of the Lake, Esther Stilwell; Sir Not Appearing, Erik Hayden; Monk, Brian O'Brien; Nun, Matt Allen; God, the voice of John Cleese; French Guards, Jonathan Brody, Brian O'Brien, Christopher Sutton; Minstrels, Christopher Sutton, Amy F. Karlein, Brian O'Brien, Darryl Semira; Sir Bors, Darryl Semira

Performances: Now through January 27, The Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston
Box Office: Ticketmaster at 617-931-2787 or www.BroadwayAcrossAmerica.com

Clip-clopping its way back to Boston for a limited engagement is the infuriatingly underperforming national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Spamalot. Stretching vaudeville bit after vaudeville bit into once-funny, twice-tedious running jokes and sight gags, this two-and-a-half hour sketch comedy dubbed "a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail" should more aptly be sub-titled The Show That Goes on Too Long.

That's not to say there aren't funny moments that can be enjoyed by both Python lovers and others as King Arthur rallies his not-so-shining knights to find the Holy Grail (McGuffin #3). Musical numbers are by and large very entertaining. "I Am Not Dead Yet" – complete with dancing corpses – sets up one of the sharpest recurring themes in the show. "The Song That Goes Like This" featuring the equally self-absorbed Lady of the Lake (the raven-haired Esther Stillwell) and Sir Dennis Galahad (the flaxen-haired Ben Davis) is a delightful riff on Broadway love songs – although its second and third appearance end up milking it dry. The Lady of the Lake's major solo turns in "Find Your Grail" and "The Diva's Lament" have the potential for being knock-out punches that unabashedly lambaste American Idol-style belting and self-indulgent artistic temperament. Unfortunately, Stillwell delivers these would-be anthems in a sometimes quavering soprano voice that belongs more appropriately to a sweet young ingénue than a tantrum-throwing pop/rock superstar. As a result, the songs never soar or hit their full comic marks.

Two second act production numbers designed to give the spotlight to "brave" Sir Robin (the skittish but congenial James Beaman) and the warrior Lancelot (a blood-thirsty turned sensitive Patrick Heusinger) are one-note burlesques that hit the audience over the head with their messages. Okay. We get it. "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" without a Jew in the cast. Do you have to repeat the phrase eight different times in one song? And Lancelot. Yeah. He looks great in spandex. Cue the Copacabana boys for his coming out party during "His Name Is Lancelot." Both songs begin well enough, earning big laughs for their Mel Brooks-like chutzpah, but they almost immediately descend into tedium, belaboring their "aren't we outrageous" sensibilities ad nauseam.

In contrast, Michael Siberry as King Arthur and Jeff Dumas as his squire Patsy show nice understated humor in their duet "I'm All Alone." Siberry also gets laughs when he deadpans exasperation at the dimwittedness of his motley crew. When asked to carry the weight of plodding book scenes, however, the weariness Siberry dons as the unfulfilled monarch could very easily be the actor's own. Heavy is the crown that sits on the lead of a fitful, sluggishly paced musical.

Having recently seen Young Frankenstein on Broadway and now Spamalot on tour, I have to wonder what I'm missing. While audiences around me hooted and hollered in eager anticipation of their favorite movie bits and lines, I found myself thinking, "What's so funny? This has all been done before." Had jokes that I could see coming a mile away landed with freshness and new vigor, I would have happily joined in the celebration. But simply reliving the memory of what was once funny on screen just isn't enough for me. I want an adaptation to delight and surprise me. I don't want a stage transfer to rest on past cinematic laurels.

At the end of the day, Spamalot is a frustrating mix of clever self parody, fun musical numbers, crass-bordering-on-offensive humor, and a plot stretched much too thin to maintain interest till the final curtain. Like the canned, processed luncheon meat from which it borrows its name, Spamalot is a little bit of pork and ham held together with a lot of bland filler.

 

PHOTOS: Kathy St. George as Corrina, Ari Heller as Mitch, and Aimee Doherty as Lureena; the ensemble of Adrift in Macao (l to r, Neal Richard Lee, Brendan McNab, Kerri Jill Garbis, Aimee Doherty, Austin Ku, Ari Heller and Kathy St. George)

PHOTO: Tom Souhrada as Barnaby Gibbs

PHOTO: James Beaman as Sir Robin, Patrick Heusinger as Lancelot, Ben Davis as Sir Dennis Galahad, Christopher Gurr as Sir Bedevere, and Michael Siberry as King Arthur


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