I am depressed by the quality of new musicals. Jukebox musicals don’t express personality or plot, and all of the glorious costumes in Priscilla couldn’t compensate for tunes that were merely glued on; current popular musical stylings result in songs I can’t stand (Les Mis, Wicked) or, more insultingly, can’t remember. And then of course there was Paradise Found. It’s a desert out there, I tell you, with tiny little dandelions (Avenue Q, Drowsy Chaperone) just occasionally poking their heads up from the gravel. This has driven me further into the Church of the Classic Musical, where I can, at least, hear words that make my brain engage and tunes I can whistle as I walk out of the theater. Thus “Lost Musicals” has become such a thrill for me, and so has finding less-popular works by the great songwriting teams. Thus Finborough Theater’s production of Me and Juliet, a Rogers and Hammerstein show from 1953, went BING BING BING when I saw it bubble up in “what’s happening” lists for this fall … though perhaps I ought to have been a bit suspicious given my disappointment in State Fair. After all, if “Blink: and you missed it” taught any lesson, it was that any genius could still crank out a lemon. Still, lemons from this era are hot fudge sundaes compared to what’s on offer from modern composers: so off I went for the European premiere production of Me and Juliet.
The story (as you will not have seen the movie or otherwise been exposed to it, I feel it’s best to add a bit of context) is the kind I think appeals to theater geeks: it’s the back stage antics of a group of people involved in putting on a show (called “Me and Juliet”) in a Broadway theater in 1953. Jeanie (Laura Main, whom I remember from State Fair) is in love with Bob (John Addison), an electrician/lighting guy who seems determined to keep her at arm’s length. Jeanie is a bright-eyed, optimistic girl who is only working as a chorus girl “for the money” – really different from the usual “I’m going to claw my way to the top” character, but more of a “I’m just waiting to fall in love and be a wife” type. Bob reminded me of Billy from Carousel – short tempered, an easy liar, somewhat violent – not the kind of guy you’d pick as a sympathetic male lead for a musical. Much more appealing is Larry (Robert Hands), the assistant stage manager, who apparently has a crush on Jeanie and is trying to help her develop the talent he sees in her. Where will this all lead? (I’ll leave that question hanging so as to not spoil the fun. How often do you get to see a 60 year old musical about which you know so little?)
Most of the fun is actually provided by the interaction of the cast members – the stage manager who is a bully but gets his when an old flame gets in the cast; the fun Jeanie and new star of the show, Betty (Jodie Jacobs) have with each other, clowning around backstage; the debate the front of house crew and audience members have (via the song “Intermission Talk”) about whether or not theater is dead, which was the high point of the show for me. I loved that I cared about every word of the songs that were sung; the cast members generally sang well and the dancing done on the very small stage was both quite respectable and a good use of the space. In fact, I’ve never seen the Finborough looking so good (though it’s only my third visit). The costumes didn’t hold up to my standards (I’m very picky about 1940s/1950s looks and am convinced I could do better on whatever budget they had to work with, though of course I’d just pull it all from my closet) but were tolerable and even fun; and hey, there was a tap dancing routine!
Though the play itself occasionally was slow and the story not … I don’t know, iconic, I’ve got to mention one point that really raised the adrenaline in the room: the cha-cha/”south of the border” number. This seems to have been a requirement in nearly every musical created in the 1950s, though I don’t understand just what was going on culturally to make this happen. Think Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy” and of course “Who’s Got the Pain” from Damn Yankees: if you’re having fun, you’ve got to have some cha-cha/samba/Cuban fever happening. It’s bizarre: still, there were the actors coming out on stage with maracas, getting ready to experience some Latin rhythms. They all got into a circle for the big production number … and suddenly a maraca shot out of nowhere, heading straight for my head! It grazed my hair and disappeared, leaving me feeling like the angel of death had just passed by: back on stage, the man who’d been holding it carried gamely on shaking his empty hand, with that “deer in the headlight” look that heralded the near arrival of catastrophic on stage corpsing. How he held it together I do not know, but he got through the scene, ran away like his tail was on fire, and presumably found his composure somewhere backstage. As for the missing maraca, I dug and dug for it after the show but wasn’t able to figure out where it had gone. Still, it was a real moment of backstage (and on stage) high spirits, and gave me a good laugh. I’m pleased to say this wasn’t the high point of the night – but overall, this was a very enjoyable evening, worth the hike to Earl’s Court and well worth the cost of the ticket.
(This review is for a performance that took place the evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 2010. The last performance was Saturday, October 30th. My apologies if you missed it!)