Well, we are almost through our first weekend of performances of this wonderful, entertaining musical at the Racine Theater Guild. My best friend Marshall Anderson came to the afternoon matinee and LOVED it- and he is a very exacting critic of anything theatrical. (He’s head of the theater department at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater). So a compliment from him is equal to four compliments from anyone else, if you know what I mean- and when he said that he really really liked it, I soared to cloud nine and have no plans for coming down anytime soon.
The show is a mix of songs and skits- and all of them around the theme of relationships and/or marriage. Most of the show is quite hilarious, but then something will come along that will be much more poignant – and I think the writers of the show achieved sheer perfection in the balance of funny and serious. (A simple 50/50 wouldn’t be quite right- but a little more funny than serious is exactly right, at least for this kind of audience.) The show might remind some of the old comedy Love American Style- although it’s a bit naughtier. . . and there’s one swear word that I have never spoken in my life . . . it starts with “s” and ends with “t” . . . which comes up three times during the evening. (horrors!) plus rather frank discussion of other matters which are fairly racy for the RTG. But the people sensitive about such things haven’t seemed to mind too much- thanks, I suspect, to just how good this show is.
What is so especially gratifying about all this is how well Doug Instines and I were able to cast this show. It was intended for a cast of just four people, which would mean that the performance turns into a long series of one frantic costume change after another. We decided to do it with eight performers instead – and my, we hit the jackpot with this talented octet! First of all, they’re an exact split of four RTG veterans and four newcomers to our stage (although the newcomers all have experience elsewhere.) They are tremendously talented- and likable – but also, as one of them was saying last night, look like regular people- which is what you want in this show. They have been extremely responsive to Doug’s direction and my input- and eager to give their best. And they are just plain nice people who – as far as I can tell- are getting along wonderfully well. During one of the cast parties, John Strack (who has been in 15 productions at the RTG over the years) was sharing horror stories about a small comedy he was in with a cast of only three- and saying how much the other two actors really disliked each other. . . and how tense things were both on and off stage. That’s one risk with small shows because they rely so heavily on chemistry- and the cast isn’t big enough to absorb any of that kind of garbage. It tends to poison everything. I count myself richly blessed and fortunate that the shows I’ve done here at the RTG have all been friendly affairs- and if anything each one is friendlier than the one that came before. And that helps make it so much more fun for everyone concerned, when there aren’t stupid and petty squabbles sapping away energy and focus. Not that they are a bunch of saccharine angels and boy scouts- they rib each other pretty vigorously, in the way that comfortable colleagues can.
One thing which impresses me to no end is how well Doug managed to divide up the score among our eight performers. Because it was written for four, we pretty much had to start from scratch in figuring out who should sing what- wanting to divide things equally but also matching people well to the various songs and scenes. The way he did it, everybody gets an equal shot at glory.
I have favorite lines and one of them comes in one of the first scenes – “A Stud and a Babe” – which is actually with two incredibly nerdy people dreaming about being something else. As the spotlights come up, they are sitting nervously and awkwardly at a table, wanting to talk to each other but struggling to know what to say. Finally, after quite a painful pause, Nick’s character looks over nervously at the girl (Katie) and says hesitantly “Did I already tell you that I got my phone fixed?” “Did you really?” “Uh huh.” “Wow.” “Yup.” And they go right back to being scared of each other. I’m pretty sure that most of us have been there and done that. . . and these two do such a good job of helping us relive those moments when we have felt so incredibly awkward and vulnerable.
I also love a scene where Zak plays a hen-pecked husband- and his song begins “In my home I’m not the boss. . . With my kids I’m at a loss. . . My life seems ‘close but no cigar’. . . I’ve been jilted by my lucky star. . . Well thank God, at least I’ve got my car!” It’s only behind the steering wheel of his car that this meek soul becomes a figure of confidence and strength and Zak manages that transformation so well and sings the song with a delicious hint of Elvis. It’s a tour de force.
There’s also a fun scene where Samantha plays a young woman who is surprised/shocked/stunned when the guy she just met actually calls her on the day he said he would call . . . she plays that phone call stuff so convincingly. . . and when her mom (Amber) bursts in, shouting “I came as soon as I heard the news!!!” all hell breaks loose! “Her phone rang! It was so unexpected when her phone rang! At last she’s not rejected ‘cause her phone rang. . . “ with the two pizza delivery guys as a rich-voiced chorus. Great stuff – and a very good indication of how far Samantha has come as a performer!
It amazes me that as nice and gentle a soul as John Strack can be so convincing playing a gravel-voiced mass murderer who is in prison for the rest of his life- participating in a hilarious “Scared Straight to the Altar” seminar in which he scares absurdly ill-matched people into getting hitched. But of course, that’s what good actors do!
For all the comedy in both the skits and songs, there are poignant moments and beautiful songs- like the really moving ballad which Amber sings so nicely in the first act- “I will be loved tonight.” She does lots of brassy stuff in the rest of the show, and it’s neat to see her shift gears so well for this tender moment. Likewise, Dan Martino throws himself into some of the goofiest stuff of the evening with marvelous abandon- and then sings the middle-aged song of reflection “Shouldn’t I be less in love with you?” with sublte eloquence. Laura, who delivers one vivid character after another, shifts gears once again so convincingly at the end of the show to portray a sweet old lady attending a funeral who is picked up by a sweet old guy (John) and struggles with whether or not to allow him into her life – and we feel every inch of that “rub” in her soul. And Katie, who delivers a powerhouse “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride” – wearing one of the most obnoxious bridesmaid dresses I’ve ever seen and getting all kinds of laughs – fifteen minutes later is able to deliver the goods in a haunting monologue in which a middle aged divorcee makes her first dating video and pours out all kinds of anger and hurt and bewilderment before she even knows what she has done.
These last four – Amber, Dan, Laura, and Katie – are all newcomers to the RTG, and to have them work out so spectacularly well is one of the best things about this production. I expect great things – and a great time – from the likes of Nick and Zack and Samantha and John – but these other four were unknown to us until they walked in the door for their auditions. . . but unknown no longer!
And as good as this cast is, it certainly makes a big difference to have such a fantastic crew behind the scenes, keeping things going so smoothly. Add to that a piano player who’s not half bad (I hope) and you have the makings of a BIG HIT. Those of you within a decent distance of the RTG should make certain – if you haven’t already – that you get to this show next weekend. And those of you unfortunate enough to live faraway will most likely have to settle for my not-so-short summary of this wonderful and memorable production.