HA! HA! Club
nytheatre.com review by Michael Bettencourt
August 19, 2006
If one word can describe HA! HA! Club, that word would be "upbeat"—relentlessly upbeat. In fact, writer Billie E. Hazelbaker turns HA! HA! Club into something like a musicalized version of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking.
But, sad to say, HA! HA! Club does not achieve the lift-off it wants. Too many elements work against it, from a homogenized score by Patrick Barnes and static lyrics by Hazelbaker and Bryan Barnes to a script that often overrides narrative logic for emotional declaration.
HA! HA! Club takes place in the Happy Acres Home for the Aged (which eventually morphs into the HA! HA! Club, using the initial letters in the institution's name). Seven disgruntled residents have their lives changed when a woman named Trudy shows up, bearing gifts and wisdom for all. Through the power of her positive thinking, they recapture a zest for living. Along the way there are songs about Viagra and how glorious life is as well as a wedding between two of the residents and Trudy's unfortunate demise in a motorcycle accident (though she does sing the audience a swan song, "It's Time," from heaven).
HA! HA! Club gets many things right. The actors invest a lot of heart and soul into selling their character-types (though they are all cast too young for the oldsters of Happy Acres). A few of the musical numbers are quite lovely. Janetta Davis, as Wilma, comes close to stealing the show with her boa-inflected vamp-lament about how her husband's use of Viagra is just wearing her out, and "Mantra in B-Flat," sung by the ensemble and using an Eastern meditation text, gifts the audience with a rare moment of emotional honesty.
But HA! HA! Club fails to solve the core challenge of this kind of musical: keeping the narrative moving forward when it is constantly being interrupted by songs that, more often than not, only amplify what the narrative has just stated. Many of HA! HA! Club's songs either simply summarize what the characters have just said or bloom forth without any narrative connection at all (as with "It's A Glorious, Glorious Life"). In the meantime, the story behind Trudy's do-good mission struggles to get around these musical obstacles (not to mention its own problems with believability and consistency) and reach the final revelation that will explain everything to everyone.
It's nice to see in a youth-obsessed culture like ours a work that focuses on the lives of older folks. But in her drive to praise and honor these lives, Hazelbaker has unfortunately substituted a kind of vaudevillian chipperness for their complexity and honesty.