Directed by Jack Marshall
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
The American Century Theater’s Hellzapoppin is not ready to pop. Too many cooks in the kitchen, ingredients thrown in from all over the place, the show needs more cooking time. Yet we come back after Intermission. Why? Because in spite of its flaws, the vaudevillian slapstick in TACT’s Hellzapoppin makes a helluva funny show.
Directed by Jack Marshall, TACT’s rewritten version of the Broadway hit that reinvented itself with improvisation every night from 1938 to 1941 is now a chaotic mess the characters ask us to expect. For protection, they attack themselves and the show, calling it a disaster before one of us critics has a chance.
That there’s a written Hellzapoppin script at all is a miracle. Gone are the acrobats and jugglers. Added are Audience Stooges, along with a host of performers who are also scripted. The result is that TACT’s team of writers listed below and an enthusiastic cast and crew reach for an ultimate punch line that never happens.
Here’s the formula: two gentle, unassuming comics, Ole Olsen, (Bill Karukas), and Chic Johnson (Doug Krenzlin), keep a lid on a pot of silly satire on the theater itself by letting themselves be upstaged by wild, manic eccentrics who get the laughs.
Not so funny are the missed possibilities in performance. The beleaguered producer (Brian Crane), who is abused and beaten up by the cast for forcing the chorus girls to sing a “serious” song, takes us back to an earlier time when literal slapstick was preferred to drama. But his “Yiddish Hitler,” as a comic symbol for a monstrous abuse of power, falls flat and doesn’t set the tone of shock it should in the beginning.
What does shock us are the practical jokes played on the audience. We get food thrown at us. We’re in the midst of chaos and the 1930s Depression. Crazy characters invade the audience to deliver the famous signature gags. “Oscar Lady” (Tanera Hutz) wanders in from the aisles, crawls over audience members looking for her son. “The Tree Man, (Evan Crump) interrupts scenes, trying to find the owner of the potted plant tree that grows bigger throughout the show. There’s a Gorilla (an actor called Congo Gorilla), who tries to replace the pianist. Then there’s Johnson’s raffle where an Audience Stooge wins a huge bag of ice.
So what’s the out-of-period parody of “Edelweiss” from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music” doing in the second act? Gorgeously clad chorus girls hold cue cards to lead us through an audience sing-along, “Legal Vice,” adapted to the tune. “Legal vice, legal vice/Lobbying makes it so easy./….It’s okay, it’s legal/And American as the Eagle.” More confusion than satire targeted at power abuse.
But some of the period jokes that are literal comedy are milked to the max and work. Enter the photographer (Alex Perez) in the “Hotel Sketch”: “Can I take your picture?” Sure, say Olsen and Johnson who strike fully dressed poses from the bed. (During the Depression years and earlier, heterosexual men shared the same bed for economy.) The Photographer removes a framed picture off the wall. (Ha, Ha. Yuk!)
Commendable performances come throughout. Most of the performers in the cast are singers, who can really sing, not belt, or scream themselves into laryngitis. Talented, Mary Millben, lovely in the gorgeous blue sequined dress or her smashing red sequined gown, is a knockout as the opera singer Lucia Frennetti Calzone, whose voice causes chandeliers to crash and lights to go out when she hits high notes. But unfortunately, this operatic singer is never allowed to finish the serious aria, “O Mio Babbino Caro.”
More memorable bits: Emily Webbe, as the Crazy Lady who goes beserk whenever she hears the line “Disney World,” is delightful as she keeps invading other skits. Talented and versatile Steven McWilliams overacts as the Drunk. He’s better as the Phantom, in satirizing Andrew Lloyd Webber, and has an affecting moment when he sings and plays guitar, “I’m My Own Grandpa,” a direct hit on intergenerational marriage. Then there’s John Tweel, who’s great as The Great Howdiddi, who gets all tied up in his own stage prop, a strait jacket with a surprising twist at the end.
These comic routines need more time to jell into a cohesive whole. But as this TACT production now stands, an energetic cast, outfitted in aptly glitzy costumes, coordinated by talented costume designer and assistant director Rip Claussen, and a year’s research and dedicated, hard work from a potpourri team of writers are not quite enough.
The American Century Theater’s Hellzapoppin, the Screamlined Revue, the original 1938 concept and book by Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, with material added by director Jack Marshall, Thomas D. Fuller, Loren Platzman, Rip Claussen, Doug Krenzlin, Ron Sarro, and Andrea Abrams.
The cast includes Bill Karukas (Olsen) and Doug Krenzlin (Johnson) and Andrea Abrams, Esther Covington, Brian Crane, Deborah Critzer, Evan Crump, Ellen Dempsey, Suzanne Edgar, Bruce Follmer, Alice Fuller, Anne Fuller, Claire Fuller, Kathy Fuller, Louis George, Tanera Hutz, Steve Lebens,Jack Marshall, Sr, Mary Millben, Steve McWilliams, Alex Perez, Dwayne Pierce, Jennifer Robison Potts, Ron Sarro, Ginny Tarris, John Tweel Emily Webbe, Glenn White, and Ed Xavier
(Running time: 2:00 with 1 intermission.) Hellzapoppin, the Screamlined Revue, continues through August 18, 2007 at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, VA 22206. Performances are Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. and 2:30 matinees on July 22, 29 and Aug. 4, 11, and 18. Tickets are $23-$29. Visit the TACT website or call 703.553.8782 for information and tickets and group sales.