All About Us: Missing Its Wisdom Teeth

All About Us

Book by Joseph Stein; music and lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb; based on Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth;" directed by Gabrielle Barre; choreography by Christopher Gattelli; musical direction by Patrick Vaccariello; orchestrations by William David Brohn and Michael Gibson; set design by James Youmans; costume design by Ann Hould-Ward; sound design by Brian Ronan; fight direction by Rick Sordelet

Cast in order of appearance:

Stage Manager, Tony Freeman
Sabina Fairweather, Cady Huffman
Maggie Antrobus, Yvette Freeman
Telegram Boy, David Standish
Henry Antrobus, Carlo Alban
Gladys Antrobus, Samantha Futerman
George Antrobus, Shuler Hensley
Mammoths, Eric Michael Gillett and Drew Taylor
Socrates/Announcer, Daniel Marcus
Plato, Michael Thomas Holmes
Homer, Frank Vlastnik
Moses, Michael James Leslie
Esmeralda, Eartha Kitt
Cleopatra, J. Elaine Marcos
Helen, Sally Ann Tumas
Joan, Rachelle Rak

Performances: Now through April 28, Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, CT
Box Office: 203-227-4177 or www.WestportPlayhouse.org

The message Thornton Wilder cloaked in absurdity in his 1942 post-apocalyptic Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Skin of Our Teeth" is certainly, and sadly, still relevant today. Poised on the brink of annihilation throughout the millennia, Mankind as represented by the stalwart Antrobus family and their mercurial maid, Sabina, is doomed to relive a cycle of destruction and reinvention over and over until people learn, both individually and collectively, to put their own houses in order before trying to rule the rest of the world.

As deeply prophetic now as it was when it debuted on the heels of the Great Depression during World War II, "The Skin of Our Teeth" is a compelling and incisively humorous play that still raises goose bumps when deftly staged and imaginatively conceived. "All About Us," however – the Joseph Stein, John Kander and Fred Ebb musical adaptation currently getting what is assumed to be a pre-Broadway tryout at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut – merely amuses, and only occasionally. Most of the time, it fails to satisfy.

One would think that a highly theatrical play with big themes and big visuals would lend itself well to the musical form. Wilder's device of actors breaking the fourth wall to comment on the complexity of the material they are performing also seems fraught with delicious possibilities. Yet, by translating into lightweight, and in many cases dispensable, musical numbers the human race's resilient attempts to survive an encroaching Ice Age, a flood of Biblical proportions, and a war-induced nuclear holocaust, "All About Us" has inadvertently diminished rather than enhanced the power of Wilder's madcap fable. The music somehow trivializes the moral. Songs disrupt rather than expedite the story's flow and dramatic build-up.

A great deal of the score also sounds like music we've heard before. Sabina's philosophical opening number about seizing the day called "Eat the Ice Cream" is very reminiscent of "Money Makes the World Go 'Round" from "Cabaret." Her Act II song, "You Owe It to Yourself," in which she provocatively seduces Mr. Antrobus away from his wife of 5000 years, is likewise familiar, complete with Fosse-esque choreography in which she drapes herself enticingly across her target's knee.

Mostly, though, the score of "All About Us" simply fails to engage emotionally. "A Whole Lot of Lovin' ," sung by world visionaries turned song-and-dance men Socrates, Plato, Homer and Moses, is trite instead of comically inspirational. Mrs. Antrobus' pointed "He Always Comes Home to Me" and plaintive "The Promise" seem to express hostility rather than steadfast determination born of thousands of years of silent suffering. "Beauty Pageant," sung by Cleopatra, Helen of Troy and Joan of Arc, is a fun but throwaway number, and "Warm," sung by two soon-to-be-extinct Wooly Mammoths, lives up to its title but does little more. The troubled teen Henry Antrobus' "Nice People" is too obviously venomous to expose the world's hypocrisy as intended, and "Military Man," the writers' attempt to put onstage the war that is only seen in its aftermath in "The Skin of Our Teeth," could perhaps realize its potential if it were more smoothly introduced into the libretto. Currently "Military Man," like most of the show's 25 songs, feel artificially inserted with little sense of what follows or comes before.

There are flashes of vintage Kander and Ebb genius in "All About Us," but the noteworthy elements of the score make the lesser material that much more disappointing. In "World Peace," for example, Sabina cleverly, if unintentionally, delivers a sexy send up of the goals beauty pageant contestants state during the interview phase of their competition. "Rain," the fortune teller Esmeralda's Act II opener, is a scathing commentary on what the future has in store for people based on how they have lived in the past. Act III's climactic "The Skin of Our Teeth" is a powerful, spine tingling anthem that conveys Mankind's hope in the midst of abject despair, and the Act I closer, "A Discussion," featuring the above mentioned four Wise Men, is a delightful rapid fire parody of the show itself. "I don't get it," the actors say, relying on the same self-mocking sarcasm that Wilder used to jab his own condescending critics.

When sticking closely to the sophisticated yet simple sensibilities of the source material, "All About Us" is at its best. It is at its worst when Joseph Stein's meandering book veers away from the original's endearing colloquialisms and turns the actors' out-of-character asides into unrelated bits designed exclusively to get cheap laughs. Whereas Wilder's device of having the actors break the fourth wall still served the play by turning them and the audience into extended members of the Family of Man, Stein's play-stopping scenarios are too contemporary and self-serving. Petty arguments between cast members about sexual harassment and the need for therapy sit uncomfortably in a play about universal survival. The in jokes about Tony Awards and Actor's Equity are admittedly funny, but contrived temper tantrums by spoiled actors just don't fit the context.

Director Gabrielle Barre's flat staging doesn't help matters. Pacing is monotonous, and scenes stop and start abruptly instead of moving fluidly. Resulting performances by the cast members are ultimately uneven. Shuler Hensley as Everyman George Antrobus seems perpetually sullen, even when he should be inspiring hope as the president or joyfully celebrating his inventions of the decimal system, the alphabet, and the wheel. Yvette Freeman as his wife Maggie is more often angry than staunchly pragmatic and loving, and Carlo Alban as the sociopathic son Henry sounds one constant, shrill note of evil.

As the supposedly ordinary but deceptively complex New Jersey accented Sabina, Cady Huffman is funny and appropriately sultry in the first two acts, but she doesn't emerge in the final act as the confident post-war veteran she could be. Symbolic of all the previously dependent women who had to assume the bread winner roles during WWII only to be forced back into domestic positions when their men came home again, Huffman's Sabina misses a key opportunity to stand unafraid against the bullying Henry and to chafe at her ultimate return to servitude. She gives an entertaining performance as far as it goes. It just doesn't go far enough.

The one clear standout in this murky musical adaptation is the glorious Eartha Kitt as Esmeralda. Potent, luminous, and positively riveting, she gives a penetrating and vibrant performance that is both grandly theatrical and subtly nuanced. Kitt squeezes every drop of dark and pointed humor out of her show-stopping musical number "Rain," and when she crosses the stage to hawk umbrellas prior to the deluge, her one-word sales pitch "um-br-ellas" drips with perfectly controlled, self-satisfying derision.

Would that everything in "All About Us" were as finely tuned as Kitt's marvelous performance. The world is certainly ready to hear the message that this show aspires to deliver. Unfortunately, "All About Us" in its current condition is not ready for the world. Perhaps it would just make more sense to revive "The Skin of Our Teeth."

PHOTOS:

1. Shuler Hensley as George Antrobus and Cady Huffman as Sabina
2. Eartha Kitt as Esmeralda
 



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From This Author Jan Nargi