The first big production number from Flora the Red Menace, “One Good Break,” a paean to young seekers everywhere, couldn’t be more apt as the theme behind the show’s creation.
For musical theater enthusiasts, Flora the Red Menace is a dear artifact. In 1965, the legendary Harold Prince, who is still working as a producer, and prolific Great White Way director George Abbott were looking for a team to write a musical they had in mind. They settled on neophytes John Kander and Fred Ebb to collaborate on what would be the celebrated writing duo’s first Broadway show. Add to that a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli in her Broadway debut in the title role. Though Minnelli netted a Tony for Best Actress, the show ran for a disappointing 87 performances, and lukewarm reviews. But the sword had already been seized from the stone — Prince, Kander and Ebb immediately began work on their next project, which would become Cabaret.
Despite the stirring backstory, Flora’s flaws abide. It feels like a big-time musical with training wheels. The show aspires to and nearly reaches the brass ring in places, but ultimately underwhelms with dull stretches, puerile plotting and songs that lack oomph.
The piece is set in 1935 during the Great Depression, and framed as a product of the WPA Federal Theater Project, even though the potentially fertile idea of down-on-their-luck actors putting on a show about perseverance and optimism in the face of hardship is never fleshed out.
Flora Mesaros, the so-named ‘red menace’ for her flirtation with a NYC Communist Party cell, is the big dreaming, job seeking fashion illustrator with gobs of Gotham City attitude. She falls for Harry Toukarian, a shy and stammering young Communist who matches Flora’s zest for life with his idealistic adherence to ideological doctrine. In her quest for Harry’s heart, it turns out Flora’s up against the Party itself, personified by the Communist cell’s leader, the zealous Comrade Charlotte.
The book is at its best in light-heartedly spoofing the nearsighted zealotry of the cell while addressing the sober issues that raised their consciousness in the first place. The plot is silly but has a compelling hinge: Will Flora choose love over necessity? Will she do the right thing by herself and others when rhetoric threatens reality?
The cast of Flora the Red Menace is appealing in a sweet old-fashioned vein, beginning with Dani Stoller as the effervescent heroine, Flora. Stoller brings the right amount of warmth, generosity, humor and pluck to the role. She’s the hustler with a joke for everyone, a vivacious whirlwind of whoopee, a tough gal with a soft heart. She shines in brash numbers like “The Kid Herself” and draws laughs from the terrific patter songs “Last Name” and “Sign Here,” but can’t quite manage the emotion in the show’s signature songs “A Quiet Thing” and “Sing Happy.” Disappointingly, the show’s energy considerably dissipates during these numbers.
Joshua Dick gives a strong and clear performance as the dedicated Harry. He firmly handles the acting, both as a pushover in the comic scenes and dramatically, when emotion runs high, whether it’s his recitation of dogma or in confrontation with Flora. Dick has a muscular voice and it rings out in “Sign Here,” “Where Did Everybody Go?” and the inspiring “The Joke.”
As the other woman, the party apparatchik Charlotte, Sherry Berg puts her all into the role, physically transforming into the tightly corseted battleship. Berg is unfettered to vamp it up with an occasionally strained performance that takes the show right to the edge of a lower caliber of farce at times, but also delivers many of the biggest laughs. Charlotte’s introduction in “The Flame,” midway through the production is a showstopper, and brings a gleeful grin to the face of anyone seeking nuggets of Kander & Ebb gold in the pan that is Flora.
Mikey Cafarelli deserves mention for his veritable embodiment of an aged Mr. Weiss, as do choreographer Stefan Sittig and the tap dancing duo Kelsey Meiklejohn and Sam Edgerly, for the tap dance number “Keepin’ It Hot.”
The production is simply and serviceably designed, and 1st Stage has a pleasing, intimate space that a musical would be stellar in. The design team of director Susan Devine, Mark Krikstan (setting) and Andrew Jorgensen (lighting) devise nifty ways to portray the show’s action within the modest space, most memorably a union picket line seen from the front and back and an ingeniously simple but perfectly realized comic scene inside an elevator.
In 1965, The New York Times described Flora the Red Menace as “a promising idea not yet enlivened by a creative spark.” Sadly, I think that characterization still holds true today. Despite an upbeat effort, Flora may always only be known as a piquant footnote in the Kander & Ebb repertoire, their “one good break” that we’re all so really grateful they got.
Flora the Red Menace
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Susan Devine
Music Direction and Orchestration by Paul Nasto
Choreographed by Stefan Sittig
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission