BWW Review: MISS ABIGAIL'S GUIDE Blends Laughs with Love at CLO Cabaret
You have to hand it to Ken Davenport- the man has a knack for finding a gimmick. As a Broadway and Off-Broadway producer, his stunts and innovations over the past decade are legendary: adding "tweet-seats" to digitally interact with cast and audience in Godspell; live-streaming a performance of Daddy Long Legs to raise the obscure show's profile; even bringing the Deaf West integrated singing/speaking/ASL musical genre to Broadway with the revival of Spring Awakening. (Mr. Davenport, if you're reading this, all I'm gonna say is: Tink! the Musical. Quirky feminist prequel to the Peter Pan mythos. Sold out its whole run at NYMF. Call me!) But beyond his achievements as a producer, perhaps his biggest thumbprint on the theatre is his creation, as writer, of what I've come to think of as the Ken Davenport House Style: simply staged, slightly improvised, comedic plays and musicals with small casts, audience participation and a lot of heart hidden under a thick cushion of silliness.
The frothy Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage, which Davenport wrote with Spelling Bee's Sarah Saltzberg, stars television and Broadway darling Paige Davis as Miss Abigail, a young Maryland widow who turned her life around by becoming an expert in the art of cultivating relationships. Now, her touring relationship seminars are known the world over, and she counts celebrities such as Angelina Jolie as clientele and friends. The only trouble is, despite her expertise in fixing other people's broken hearts, she can't realize that her own life is a little lonely since the death of her husband... or that her co-host Paco (Jerreme Rodriguez) is desperately in love with her.
True to her background both in theatre and reality TV, Paige Davis is a wonder, lighting up the stage with a natural charisma and audience rapport. Her off-the-cuff remarks during the audience interactions were witty and topical; the night I attended, many of them focused on the surprise closure of An Act of God at the Public due to the star's wife going into labor. (Davis, in character as Miss Abigail, even quipped that she wished she could have seen that show when Paige Davis did it down in the Southwest.) No, Davis does not deploy one of her signature high kicks in this show, but with all the wit and warmth she brings to the slightly-Southern hostess, you'll never miss them.
Attending the first show of the extended run, I didn't get to see Javier Manente in the role of Paco, but Jerreme Rodriguez brings star-level sizzle on his own. Though the role is underwritten, and perhaps leans a little too hard on the "flamboyant, persnickety foreign metrosexual" trope (see also: Raj in The Big Bang Theory), Rodriguez's grounded and soulful performance finds the reality in the silliness of his roller-discoing, salsa-dancing, audience-baiting character. When Rodriguez momentarily drops Paco's accent to imitate a Siri-like "white people voice," he gets one of the biggest and best-earned laughs of the night. (Longtime CLO fans will appreciate the briefest of brief cameos by Tim Brady as... himself?)
With Miss Abigail's propensity for unintended double entendres and naivite, and Paco's constant Latin-lover flirtation, it would be all too easy for Miss Abigail's Guide to devolve into a 90-minute extension of a Saturday Night Live sketch, clever in small doses but outstaying its welcome. Thankfully, director Luanne Nunes De Char grounds the piece in a genuine reality, never allowing it to grow so broad that it disappears up its own fundament. Davis, who exudes warmth, never becomes a caricature, even in moments that practically beg for scenery chewing. Her wounded but still-beating heart is the show's true core, as she begins to take the show's message to heart herself.
I spoke briefly to Paige Davis after the show about her approach to the role of Miss Abigail, who pores over frequently dated and inadvertently offensive reference books from the past. Her secret to the role and Miss Abigail's advice? Respect. "All these books that she references in the show, they're not props, they're not just things the authors made up. They're real books and most of the quotes are real," Davis confided. "And if you can get past the dated material, the gender stuff that's mostly out of date today, what you find is very simple: love is about respect. You have to show respect to others, and you have to show respect to yourself as well- present yourself in the best and most honest way you can. If love isn't working, chances are you're not respecting them or respecting you." (Speaking of love and marriage, Davis's husband, Broadway villain actor par excellence Patrick Page, was Scrooge in A Christmas Carol for CLO last year. Here's hoping he comes back for a repeat engagement!)
With wordplay, slapstick, generation gap humor and a sometimes-surprising tenderness, Davis and Rodriguez bring the frothy whipped concoction that is Miss Abigail's Guide to life, and give it a strong, full arc. The show's inevitable happy ending (executed, in a brave move, with a smash cut from the final moment to a curtain-call tableau that cements the play's resolution) feels earned, not arbitrary. Maybe it's the direction, or the charisma of our two stars, but I think everyone who attended this evening's "seminar" left with a little more pep in their step than they had coming in- especially the two audience members who played volunteer roles in the show. These two gentlemen were so game to participate, and displayed such wit and timing, that I had to check with the cast afterwards to see if they were plants. And they weren't! That, dear readers, is the power of theatre.