The Sensational Sans Sullivan Radio Hour is exceedingly reminiscent of a high school play, which is not surprising, considering that Beat on the Bard Theatre Company is comprised of young high school graduates from Arlington. They have adapted W.S. Gilbert’s 1871 operetta A Sensation Novel into something that resembles a radio play crossed with a highly stylized musical. And it is utterly uninteresting.
To set the scene, picture four microphones on the apron, a small band in an upstage corner, and a few other minimal set pieces. As the musicians begin to play, we meet the Author (Michael Oppeneheimer) and quickly catch on that he has made a deal with the inexplicably drunk God of Romance (Jake Goozner) in order to enhance his writing.
However, the classic characters provided by the God of Romance—the sinister villain, the infallible Sunday school teacher, the cunning femme fatale, and the virtuous governess—are so enchanted that they are able to come to life, independent of the Author’s will. The audience witnesses what happens between the chapters of the novel. The characters are released from their enchantment and recap what they have been forced to do within the confines of the book.
It is so disappointing to see young but talented performers try to force their way through an outdated and lackluster script. The text demands that their characters be merely the stock types constantly used in literature, which, surprise, is not an interesting premise. Intended to be a comedy, the piece suffers as plot-driven moments obscure the humorous bits, and the audience is left struggling to tell which is which.
The Sensational Sans Sullivan Radio Hour
by G. W. Gilbert
at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – Mountain
900 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC, 20001
Details and tickets
In addition, most of the play is spent retelling stories that have already happened. When characters are consistently forced to rehash things for the audience’s sake, it creates an entirely passive atmosphere and almost entirely prohibits character development.
The challenging script aside, there are some bright lights within the production. Both Nicole Gianuca as Alice Grey and Mishika Tshishimbi as Lady Rockalda have solid voices and are able to pull off the jazzy style of the music. In James Randall, playing the pious Herbert, there are glimpses of a developing character actor with good comic instincts. Paul Gulley as Sir Ruthven is quite charming as he retells the story of his clandestine love for Ms. Grey. The most riveting aspect of the production, however, is the band. Casual and assured, the musicians pop gum and even eat sandwiches during the show. Their laidback confidence is a welcome respite from the tedium playing out in front of them.
Beat on the Bard clearly has the resources to present something interesting. They have the raw talent which, with some training and good direction, has serious potential. They have musicians who can steal a show with little to no effort. If they can learn to have discretion when choosing projects, Beat on the Bard will have a chance.
My advice? Skip musicals from the nineteenth century and skip banal storylines. Pick something exciting and watch what happens.