note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Ken Happe
By Ken Happe
This season the Foothills Theatre Company is commemorating its founding 25 years ago. Since then Marc and Susan Smith have valiantly staged some 150 productions. Nobody in Worcester County can match the Smiths for quantity. Sixteen of the productions were also written or created by Mr. Smith and no other Artistic director in New England can make that claim and few have even held the directorship of a theatre for that length of time.
Smith has served the Worcester theatre-going community by offering a survey of mostly American and British plays, some classics but mostly just popular, small cast and mostly from earlier decades. For example, in the 1990s,he has stage only about five dramas written in the 90s (other than his own). This may tell us more about the quality of playwriting around the world at the end of the millenium or about Smith's sensitive feel for his followers' acceptance of such plays as there are or about his own personal taste or familiarity with them.
In any event, Smith's current effort reminds the faithful fans of his near obsession with American vaudeville, a species of popular entertainment that flowered from about 1890 to 1920, which coincided with waves of immigration to the cities of the east coast from Europe. He has trolled these waters before in two earlier incarnations of a work called Viva Vaudeville! Now he's at it again with The Great American Backporch Vaudeville Revue*not to be confused with The Great American Back Stage Musical Revue done a few years back.
The premise of the pencil-thin plot is that of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie: the kids are rehearsing a salute to vaudeville on someone's back porch. The next door neighbor, a humorless Stepford husband objects to the noise and to theatrical types in his suburban neighborhood *talk about real estate values going down. This modern Malvolio even threatens foreclosure on their house on which he conveniently holds the second mortgage.
The kids (definitely not in their teens) put on a rehearsal to dissuade him. And who do you think is singing, dancing, playing the accordion and saxophone by the end of the second act? He also owns a vacant theatre downtown, would you believe?
So for two and a half hours, we have 35 catchy tunes, 60% of which are pre-1920. Interspersed are simple gags and evocations of period comic routines. The popular songs include: "Silver Moon," "Harvest Moon," "Me and My Girl," "Alexander's Ragtime Band", "Mrs. Murphy's Chowder", "Second Hand Rose," and a sequence of so-called "Sob and Wail" songs * among many, many others. In short, Rent it ain't.
If you don't know these old time numbers, don't worry. There are several sing-a-longs when the personable cast will teach them to you. And, of course, it ends with a flag-waving rendition of "It's a Grand Old Flag."
It is Mr. Smith's evident belief that vaudeville amalgamated the various immigrant groups into a melting pot and turned us into a great united stew.
The show, in brief, then, is a genial, unpretentious, patriotic, sentimental, nostalgic, frivolous, friendly, easy-going and familiar sermonette. The overall tone would also make anyone who didn't join in Sunday's opening standing ovation feel like a cynical, un-American, pseudo-intellectual prudish prune.
The cast of nine seems extremely gifted: Jerry Bisantz, Celeste McClain, Stephen Murray, Terrence O'Malley, Liana Reda, Dorian Gray Ross, Cory Scott, Doug Shapiro and Monica Tosches. Almost all have appeared at Foothills before in productions like The Brewster Papers, Lucky Stiff, Backstage Confidential, The Story of Dr. Faustus which some may remember. Two of the males seemed a little wavery in the vocals at times and one gentleman in the back row really needs to brush up his dance steps. Otherwise the company couldn't be more likeable, even charming. >P> Speaking of that dancing: Denise Day choreographed and choreographed and choreographed. There are 35 songs and those kids, God love 'em, never stop moving. Day's inexhaustible invention and most of the cast's memory impressed this viewer.
As does Stephen Murray's virtually continuous piano-playing. He is the sole accompanist, except for some kazoos and a washboard. His very strong singing voice and the two original songs he wrote the for the show also pleased especially the penultimate Act II finale, "Make a Little Noise."
The back porch by the way is a stunner: a realistic gray clapboard Cape Cod-y look with a lawn-edged brick patio, along with swinging potted African violets and a rolled up garden hose adding a detailed touch. It's the work of Michael Reidy, an experienced designer from Maine.
Annemarie Duggan engineered the tricky lighting design which progresses from late afternoon to evening and Ted Giammona contributed, I presume, the rehearsal clothes which are mostly tee shirts and jeans and chinos. A tailor named Sam evidently designed one particular suit.
This holiday show might be ideal for exhausted shoppers of a certain age who'd like to sit down comfortably and rest undisturbed and enjoy a terribly old-fashioned show and some very familiar tunes and small, undemanding smiles.