Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: Southern Charm Radiates from Theater J's THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO

Review: Southern Charm Radiates from Theater J's THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO

If there is one constant in the works of Alfred Uhry it is that of a social conscience. This was, after all, the playwright who brought us the poignant Pulitzer Prize winning play Driving Miss Daisy and the heartbreaking musical Parade. Which is why it is surprising that his play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was lacking that moral clarity and conscience.

Despite the eternal themes of identity and religious tolerance, combined with its vivid characters and sharp barbs, the examination of religious prejudice too often becomes a secondary concern in the play. The result is that Theater J's production, led by Susan Rome and Shayna Blass, while near perfect, still cannot overcome the fact that The Last Night of Ballyhoo has the impact of Hallmark movie - gentle, warm, but ultimately forgettable.

The problem lies in the play's construction. More specifically, that the focus often seems misplaced. And while the family dynamic is fun to watch, the play has deeper themes. We can't help but wish Uhry would explore them.

When we first meet the Freitag family, Lala, the aforementioned Blass, is bubbling with excitement. Gone with the Wind is having its world premiere in Atlanta and Lala wants to go star-gaze at all the celebrities attending. Her mother Boo, played by the commanding and steely Rome, would rather she focus less on the movie premiere and more on getting a date to the upcoming Ballyhoo, an all-Jewish dance. However, Lala wants nothing to do with Ballyhoo until her Uncle Adolph, the loving and paternal Sasha Olinick, brings his new assistant Joe to a family dinner. Suddenly Lala is interested in Ballyhoo, and going with Joe, played with boyish good looks and charm by Zack Powell. Joe is not interested in Ballyhoo that is until he meets Lala's cousin Sunny, the bookish and smart Madeline Rose Burrows.

The conflict in The Last Night of Ballyhoo lies in both in the Freitag family's association with Judaism and the location of the Ballyhoo. Even though the family is Jewish, they have a Christmas tree radiating with colored lights and gifts, wish their neighbors and friends a 'merry Christmas', and often remind us that they are one of two Jewish families who live on an upper-class street. As for the Ballyhoo, it is being held at a club whose membership is restricted to Jews of German descent. Jews from Eastern Europe, Russia or elsewhere are prohibited from becoming members.

And while the setup is utterly intriguing, too much of the play focuses on the Ballyhoo itself. Will Lala get a date, what will she wear, and is Joe going to ask Sunny to be his date? It is not till the final quarter of the play where the issue of religious identity and tolerance is raised, courtesy of Joe's passion and pride in his Eastern European heritage. By that point the conflict is quickly wrapped-up, so much so that it is debatable whether the final scene is real or a dream sequence.

That's not to say that the play is not enjoyable, quite the opposite. There are many laughs to be had, the cast is stellar and the production top-notch. Blass, who despite being New York-based, is becoming a fixture in the DC theater scene and for good reason. Her Lala gives both Vivien Leigh and Carol Burnett's Scarlett O'Hara a run for their money in terms of drama and laughs. She's aided by Amber Paige McGinnis' direction which celebrates the play's humor. When we see Lala's Ballyhoo dress, tactfully designed for comedic effect by Kelsey Hunt, McGinnis acutely knows how to prevent the scene and the gag inherit in Lala's costume from carrying on too long.

A steely and determined Rome is sharp as Boo. Both the desperation of Lala's situation and drive in fixing her daughter's flaws make her someone not to be reckoned with. Then again though, the play is not a question of whether Lala goes to Ballyhoo. But rather what happens when beliefs become so ingrained that we fail to notice them. There's a moment when Aunt Reba, played with absent-minded charm by Julie-Ann Elliott, makes a remark about the 'other Jews' and not only is this never challenged, it is barely acknowledged.

Uhry was commissioned by the Olympics' Art Festival to write The Last Night of Ballyhoo in celebration of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. He choose to set the play during the last major event to take place in the city, the 1939 world premiere of Gone with the Wind. And the movie, in many ways, is almost like a silent character.

Now if you have never seen Gone with the Wind, do not worry because movie posters and pictures from the premiere fill Daniel Conway's stylish upper-middle class set. Justin Schmitz's sound design utilizes Max Steiner's score from the Civil War epic between scenes, returning us to the grandeur of the antebellum south. The score is also utilized in a tongue-and-cheek manner as a humorous accompaniment to Lala's many dramatic moments.

There's a lot to like with The Last Night of Ballyhoo. However, while Uhry may have strived to have the play make a statement, we are instead left with a feel-good play that says little. From the cast to the creative design aspects, Theater J's production is as good as it gets. We just wish Uhry's play was the same way.

Runtime is two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The Last Night of Ballyhoo runs thru December 31 at Theater J - 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20036. For tickets please click here.

Photo: Shayna Blass and Susan Rome in The Last Night of Ballyhoo at Theater J. Credit: Teresa Castracane.

Amadou & Mariam Announce U.S. Tour in Support of New Live Album ECLIPSE Photo
Superstars of Malian music with an illustrious career spanning more than 40 years, Amadou & Mariam will headline venerable U.S. venues such as Miner Auditorium @ SF JAZZ, Le Poisson Rouge (NYC), 9:30 Club (Wash. DC), and others from March 14 - 25, 2023.

Review: ANASTASIA at Capital One Hall Photo
The National Tour of the stunning musical, Anastasia, is visiting Capital One Hall for only a few shows, and you certainly won't want to miss it.

Regalitos Foundation & Brevard Music Group Presents Jimmie Vaughan & The Tilt-A-Wh Photo
Regalitos Foundation has announced Jimmie Vaughan & The Tilt-A-Whirl Band coming to the Space Coast at the King Center for the Performing Arts!

Interview: Cheryl L. West & Kenneth L. Roberson Explain the Story of SHOUT SISTER SHOU Photo
As Ford’s Theatre gears up for the spring 2023 musical, SHOUT SISTER SHOUT!, director Kenneth L. Roberson and playwright Cheryl L. West had a conversation with Director of Artistic Programming José Carrasquillo.

From This Author - Benjamin Tomchik

Ben is an avid theatergoer who has seen more than 350 musicals and plays.  Some of his most memorable theatrical experiences include: accidentally insulting Andrew Lloyd Webber at a performanc... (read more about this author)

BWW Interview: Molly Smith of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN at Arena StageBWW Interview: Molly Smith of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN at Arena Stage
March 14, 2022

Catch Me If You Can is not Molly Smith’s first musical with a con artist at the heart of it. In 2012, she directed a hit production of The Music Man, whose main character, Professor Harold Hill, could give Abagnale a run for his money. What is it about these men who have the ability to make us see what we want, and to command the stage while doing so, that lends itself to the theater?

BWW Review: Arena Stage's Confused CHANGE AGENTBWW Review: Arena Stage's Confused CHANGE AGENT
February 5, 2022

Change Agent is a play based on historical events, in this case the life of American painter Mary Pinchot Meyer (Andrea Abello) and her relationship with President John F. Kennedy (Luis Vega). The two meet at a college dance in 1936, continually run into each other at major world events, such as in San Francisco at the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and develop a friendship and then relationship culminating during Kennedy's presidency.

BWW Review: A Subtle SEVEN GUITARS at Arena StageBWW Review: A Subtle SEVEN GUITARS at Arena Stage
December 4, 2021

August Wilson’s story of seven friends in post-war Pittsburgh may take a while to get started, but don’t let the slow pace or lengthy run time fool you. The play, and Arena’s production, have all the ingredients of great drama - rich characters, powerful writing, and human introspection - and together they simmer and tell a timeless story about race and economic inequality in America.