BWW Reviews: JUNE MOON Classic Rib Tickler at Williamstown Theatre Festival

BWW Reviews: JUNE MOON Classic Rib Tickler at Williamstown Theatre Festival

In JUNE MOON, which is the first offering of the Williamstown Theatre Festival's 2014 season, Edna Baker (a gentle and upbeat Rachel Napoleon) and Fred Stevens (a bumbling, gullible Nate Corddry) are two innocents who meet each other in the parlor car of a New York City bound train. Set in 1929, just before the stock market crash, they exchange nervous pleasantries and promise to meet again in the big city.

Fred, you see, is a promising lyricist headed to a new partnership with someone he perceives as a successful composer. Paul Spears (Rick Holmes) on the other hand, barely knows how to play the piano and has had exactly one hit, "Paprika" with corny lyrics about the girl being the spice in his life. He is married to Lucille (Kate MacCluggage) and is supporting her sister, the gold digger Eileen (Holly Fain) who soon has innocent Fred under her spell. The plot starts from there and is typical summer straw hat circuit stuff as romance gets fired up with deceit and double talk, and the Tin Pan Alley composers fight for the publisher's ear so they can get thier silly ditties published.

The first act is mostly standard 1920-30 comedy writing, by a true master of the craft, George S. Kaufman. In JUNE MOON he partnered with the less romantic Ring Lardner whose influence resulted in all the characters having a deceitful side, and thus there are no real heroes in JUNE MOON, only patsies, liars and opportunists. In that way it is sufficiently different from the light comedies that dominated that period to deserve a fresh look now and then, When Jenny Gersten picked it for the season opener (before leaving for a new position in New York) I think she saw it as a distinct contrast to the light and bubbly comedies that often fill the coveted spot.

JUNE MOON's first act is needed to establish the characters, their motives and to carry the story along in enough detail so that the second act makes sense. It drags on a bit too long, but it is also fair to say that director Jessica Stone hewed very close to the script as originally written.

Faithful, that is, until we get to the second act. Then, as the second half begins, Stone unties the cast, and unleshes an improvisation on the battle of the songwriters that may just be the funniest sequence of one-upmanship ever staged. To see the musical fireworks explode amid a small army of characters running in and out of the offices and wings with others hammering pianos and bellowing lyrics at the top of their lungs is the sort of organized mayhem you see in a farce, and it left the audience gasping for air. It literally stopped the show until finally some calm returned.

From that point on JUNE MOON stayed in overdrive (albeit in a 1929 vehicle). The plot remains fairly predictable, but having absorbed the exposition, it now holds our interest until the authors manage to wrest a kind of happy ending from the tatters of broken relationships and endless deceptions.

There were some other high points, too.

Christopher Fitzgerald outdoes himself as a comic actor, playing an unforgettable Benny Fox, the most bizarre character in JUNE MOON. Few actors can match his versatility on stage. He has a perfect sense of timing, and knows how to use the simplest of comedy devices for maximum effect. Fitzgerald took his small role and has likely imprinted it into my memory book of greatest small roles ever. Also remarkable in a minor role is the imposing Jason Bowen who as the window-washer, ends up taking a turn at the piano to surprising results.

Williamstown has some of the finest support teams around, and the sets were a delight. They first open on the intimate interior of a passenger train car, then move to a Manhattan apartment, and finally, as Act Two began, filed the stage with the interior of a busy office in Manhattan with rehearsal and meeting rooms running off it in all directions. It got a hand as soon as the curtain went up on Act Two. Tobin Ost designed the sets, and they were well lit by Jeff Croiter and decorated by the costumes by Gregg Barnes.

It is a solid beginning for the 2014 Williamstown Theatre Festival, and if you enjoy a trip into the nostalgic past of popular theatre of the last century, you owe it to yourself to see this charming production with its huge cast. As the play's curtain came down some 30 actors filled the stage with a full-throated rendition of one of the songs from that era. Another brilliant Jessica Stone touch. Long may she reign at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents June Moon by Ring Lardner & George S.Kaufman, Directed by Jessica Stone, Tobin Ost Scenic Designer; Gregg Barnes Costume Designer; Jeff Croiter, Lighting Designer; Drew Levy, Sound Designer; Kris Kukul, Music Consultant.Cast: Nate Corddry (Fred Stevens), Rachel Napoleon (Edna Baker), Rick Holmes (Paul Sears), Kate MacCluggage (Lucille Sears), Holley Fain (Eileen Fletcher), David Turner (Maxie), Diana DiMarzio (Goldie), Jason Bowen (Window Cleaner), Chjristopher Fitzgerald (Benny Fox), Timothy Shew (Mr. Hart), Dennis Kozee (A Man Named Brainard), Whitney Maris Brown; Also Song Pluggers, Pianists and Ensemble. July 2-13, 2014 at the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA. Box Office 413.597.3400

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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