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BWW Reviews: The Alley Theatre's YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is Amusing, Spirited, and Relevant

When it comes to American Theatre from the 1930s, one of the leading writing duos was George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. This pair is integral in the development of Modern American Theatre. They are often studied in survey courses that chart the progression of the art form, and most agree that together they wrote some of America's favorite comedies. Their hilarious and heartwarming 1936 play YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU premiered at the Booth Theater on December 14, 1936 and ran for 837 performances. It also won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. When it was adapted for film by Frank Capra and Robert Riskin in 1938, it won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Now, in 2013, The Alley Theatre is reviving the classic and hysterical masterpiece about an eccentric family that is happily surviving the Great Depression. It's 1936, and their key to bliss is to embrace the love they have for one another, their hobbies, and to find ways to simply enjoy the life they've got.

Leaving last night's opening night performance of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, my face was glowing. I look around and everyone was wearing a beaming smile. Also, some eyes were misty because of Grandpa's poignant and touching climatic discussion with Mr. Kirby. However, nothing could impede the sense of euphoria and mirth that had washed over the audience. Directing the production, Sanford Robbins skillfully coached his cast in delivery, making each joke land squarely to earn voluminous laughter. He also skillfully directed the beloved classic to ensure that its universal and seemingly timeless messages about what defines a happy family and how the path to happiness is just to tune the world out, embrace your individuality, find your own personal freedom, and live life are masterfully brought out. The importance and weightiness of the thematic elements are front and center in this production so that they aren't lost in the zany whirlwind of the eclectic family. Furthermore, with the recent threat of a government shutdown, several lines are surprisingly relevant for modern audiences such as:

Tax Man: What about Congress, and the Supreme Court, and the President? We gotta pay them, don't we?

Grandpa: Not with my money.

The production is well cast, and no one actor tries to steal the scene or the show. For a majority of the production, the cast works cohesively as an ensemble, keeping the funny bits light and merry so that when the show does get serious it is wonderfully affecting. Josie de Guzman's Penelope "Penny" Sycamore is sprightly and charming. Todd Waite's Paul Sycamore is like a little boy with a fanciful imagination. John Tyson's Boris Kolenkhov is a screwball cartoon of a Russian immigrant whose unpredictable behaviors leave the audience in stitches. Elizabeth Bunch's drunken Gay Wellington has a grand exit that earns thunderous applause and hearty guffaws. Jasmine Bracey and David Rainey as Rheba and Donald are delightful caricatures of working class African-Americans, and while some of their lines (especially out of context of the show) may rub our PC sentimentality the wrong way, last night's audience went with the flow and truly got swept away by their superb performances.

Emily Neves' Alice and Jay Sullivan's Tony Kirby make an absolutely adorable couple. Their onstage chemistry is perfect, which makes the love the characters feel for one another intoxicating. Moreover, Emily Neves brings vivid life to Alice's insecurities and fears about her seemingly crazy family, providing the second act with the appropriate high stakes. Individually, they offer strong performances that fascinate, but together Emily Neves and Jay Sullivan are beguiling and warm the hearts of the audience. It would be impossible not to root for their characters to have the happily ever after they long for. Melissa Pritchett's Essie, for me, was the show's weakest point. Her portrayal of the character felt forced, especially when compared to the subtlety the rest of cast worked into their characters. Yes, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote larger-than-life characters, but the rest of the cast colors these unlikely people with a palpable realness that makes them believable. Unfortunately, Melissa Pritchett over acts her part and doesn't bring an authentic or even natural quality to her Essie. She bounds around the stage, utilizes comedic dance poses, and even gets on pointe, but her character feels overly exaggerated from the beginning to the end of the production.

During curtain call, the final bow is justifiably reserved for James Black's Martin "Grandpa" Vanderhof. James Black is astounding in the role. In the second scene of the second act (originally written as the play's third act), he perfectly delivers each of his powerful lines with skilled precision. Leading up to the climatic moments, James Black astutely grants his Grandpa a sardonic and dry wit, and his persona almost comes across as lackadaisical because of how deeply he embraces the philosophy of having fun by doing what makes you happy; however, as he hashes things out with Mr. Kirby the audience sees just how serious and intelligent Grandpa is.

Hugh Landwehr's cluttered set is gigantic, gorgeous, and purposefully busy. In many ways, this technical aspect of the production is a character in the play as well, and Hugh Landwehr has expertly attended to every detail. Waiting for the show to begin, my grandmother and I had a blast finding all of the various small tchotchkes, trinkets, and baubles. The living room he creates on stage is welcoming and warm, creating a perfect habitation for this peculiar American family.

The Alley's current production of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU is amusing, spirited, touching, and wonderfully relevant for audiences almost 77 years after it premiered. This production is a fantastically entertaining and fun night out at the theatre. This is theatre not to be missed.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.

YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, produced by the Alley Theatre, plays the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, Houston, 77002 now through October 20, 2013. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:30pm. For more information and tickets, please visit or call (713) 220 -5700.

Photos by Jann Whaley. Courtesy of the Alley Theatre.

(Front, Left to Right) Melissa Pritchett as Essie, James Black as Martin Vanderhof, Emily Neves as Alice, Jay Sullivan as Tony Kirby and Alma Cuervo as Olga; (Back, Left to Right) Chris Hutchison as Ed, David Rainey as Donald, Jasmine Bracey as Rheba, Elizabeth Bunch as Gay Wellington, Jeffrey Bean as Mr. De Pinna, Josie de Guzman as Penelope Sycamore, Todd Waite as Paul Sycamore, John Tyson as Boris Kolenkhov, Anne Quackenbush as Mrs. Kirby, and Paul Hope as Mr. Kirby.

Melissa Pritchett as Essie and James Black as Martin Vanderhof.

(Left to Right) Emily Neves as Alice and Jay Sullivan as Tony Kirby.

Josie de Guzman as Penelope Sycamore.

(Left to Right) Paul Hope as Mr. Kirby, Jay Sullivan as Tony Kirby and John Tyson as Boris Kolenkhov.

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