Hooray For What!
nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
March 19, 2008
Director Barbara Vann notes in the program for Hooray for What! that the original Broadway production of this 1937 musical incorporated "a dog act, contortionists, puppets, pyrotechnics," and the like. After watching this revival at Medicine Show, it's easy to imagine this old-fashioned musical functioning like a variety act: here's a romantic duet, here's a funny scene, here's a dance number, here's a magic trick, etc. Certainly there is a loose plot and an anti-war message, but this Yip Harburg-Harold Arlen musical (the lyricist and composer behind The Wizard of Oz) predates the tradition of story-driven musicals, which most scholars say began with Oklahoma! in 1943.
Not that there's anything really wrong with that. I only point this out because in order for a revival of Hooray for What! to work, it must be sheer, unadulterated entertainment. Despite the best efforts of the cast, this production fails to embody the exuberant, zany musical that is written on the page.
The musical centers on a mad scientist, Chuckles, who accidentally invents a poisonous gas that could potentially conquer the world. When Chuckles refuses to give the formula to weapons manufacturer Breezy Cunningham, Breezy brings in world-renowned spy and temptress Stephanie Stephanovich to cajole it out of him. Rather than give in, Chuckles scurries off to the League of Nations Peace Conference in Geneva to peddle a gas that creates love, while Breezy, Stephanie, and other spies attempt to steal the formula for the poisonous gas.
Silly and satirical? Naturally. And sure, it might be somewhat relevant since we're in the midst of a war, but there's no denying that the show's a bit dated. The book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse contains the kind of madcap humor and contemporary references that younger audiences might not get. (When Breezy tempts Chuckles with fame, saying he'll be on the lips of everyone, Chuckles replies "I like the sound of that... I'll start with Myrna Loy.") But as with every musical, it's the score that matters, and Arlen's infectious tunes are ably executed here by the musical director and pianist, Jake Lloyd. Harburg writes the lyrics with mischievous whimsy, especially in songs such as "Down with Love" and "God's Country."
It would be great to be able to say that the Medicine Show has mounted a worthy production of a lost gem, and perhaps they did the first time they revived the show in 1983. But this poorly directed production lacks an understanding of vaudevillian-style humor, with its clumsy staging and egregiously sluggish pace. (The evening clocks in at about three hours.) Old-fashioned humor demands smooth movements with clockwork-like precision. But because the stage becomes cramped with miscellaneous set pieces and the 14-person cast, the actors often end up standing in a line or in a jumble. The elements tend to work against choreographer Dieter Riesle as well, with the dancers strutting out of sync. With these awkward surroundings, many of the tried-and-true punch-lines of yesteryear just won't land.
But many of the actors try. As Chuckles, a deliciously hammy Mike Lesser channels Ed Wynn (who originated the role) by way of Jerry Lewis, in his simultaneously witty and witless personality. Squeaking out his rim-shot worthy retorts in a nerdy and nasally voice, Lesser is a seemingly naïve foil to Adrienne Hurd's throaty, sensual Stephanie Stephanovich. Although James Eden struggles to encapsulate the suave sliminess of Breezy, he endears in his duets with Beth Griffith, who plays Breezy's girlfriend with ingénue innocence and sings with a trilling, powerful soprano. Standouts among the remaining cast include Vince Phillip as the brassy town mayor, and Rachel Grundy who executes her many parts, including as saxophonist and flutist, with natural ease.
Vann, perhaps aware that this show was never meant to be performed in a black box, tries to demonstrate the show's loud and exuberant energy through visuals. Designer Joel Handorff creates quirky set pieces, including a cartoonish tree with cardboard cutouts of red apples dangling from the branches. Uta Bekaia's costumes are bright and fun, but there must be five of them for each actor. The time taken to put on the costumes or change the set only exacerbates the tedious pace of the show, especially the consistent and unnecessary drawing and opening of several decorative curtains.
The show also appears to be under-rehearsed: at the performance I attended several actors were visibly waiting in the wings, a few folks flubbed their lines, and something was being dragged across the floor backstage for about a minute. It's a shame, as this little-known musical is worthy of a second look.