Tell me what the movies Singing in the Rain and Prix de Beaute have in common? What, you haven’t heard of the second one? Well, this 1930 Louise Brooks film, made in two versions, is a real treat. So the secret is that both films are deeply immersed in the effect that the introduction of sound had to the evolution of the movies … and, if you look over your shoulder, to the effect that movies had on the support for live theater (as it’s sound cinema that killed vaudeville/music hall culture, putting Gypsy on the stage and making Norma Desmond mad). I am very interested in the change that The Jazz Singer brought to the world of cinema … and having the chance to see a play set during this fruitful era was one I could not let pass me by. And it was written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman … my hopes were high!
I’ll warn you that this show will go down best if you have a taste for the “screwball comedies” of 1930s Hollywood – with plots built around things like debutantes taking care of chimpanzees (or maybe cheetahs) while wearing an improbable series of expensive dresses. Yes, reality isn’t really a consideration, and the sooner you stop expecting it, the easier it will be for you to enjoy Once in a Lifetime.
The show opens in the hallway (?) of the tacky hotel the vaudeville troupe of May (Claudie Blakley), Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and George (John Marquez) are sharing. May has some bad news: they’re running out of money. It seems like this group has run out of steam. But suddenly Jerry bursts on the scene and announces he’s sold the act so they can run to Hollywood and, somehow, make a fast buck out of the rise of the talking picture. He’s just seen The Jazz Singer and he’s sure there’s money to be made in Hollywood. Give him credit: he has certainly seen the sea change moment. However, he has no idea WHAT to do, and it winds up being May who comes up with the idea of running an elocution school. While the trio are on a train to the promised land (Hollywood), May somehow manages to convince an influential friend of hers, film critic Helen Hobart (Lucy Cohu), to get behind their crazy idea, and suddenly, boom, it’s Hollywood at one of the most chaotic times ever, and our silly little play is off careening down an iced slalom with a complete disregard for logic.
Along the way, we get to see all of the people constantly thinking they have something that ought to be in pictures, tons of glamorous dresses (no cheetahs or chimpanzees, alas), an endlessly rotating stage, way to many Indian nuts, a complete simpleton running an expensive Hollywood production, and an endless paean to the idea that it’s not skill but luck that leads to success.
The acting is not as energizing as it could be (and neither is the script at first), but there are so many astoundingly comic characters for the rather bland leads to bounce off of that I began to feel like I was, actually, watching a 1930s movie, with the incredible depth of character actors they had to choose from. Throughout it all, though, I maintained a high degree of ironic separation from the unreality of what I was seeing on stage … only, underneath it all, it seemed the lesson that the monkeys are actually in charge at the zoo seemed as correct in real life (say, in banking, business, and politics) as it was in this play. Oh, it’s all so funny because it’s just all so true. Skill and talent mean nothing; the ability to spin a convincing line of bullshit and get powerful people on your side is everything. And how can that not make you laugh? This play may have its faults, but I found it an effervescent slice of topsy-turvy reality wholly suited to the end of this most topsy-turvy of years. Who needs panto when you’ve got Once in a Lifetime?
(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 3rd, 2016. It continues through January 14th.)