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A CurtainUp Review

I'm a vintage wine, a classic design. These aren't wrinkles, they're my patina. I'm a woman of a certain age, and you know what I mean. I'm a book about to get the good part, I'm a rose in second bloom. . .And the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune. — from "The Older the Fiddle, the Sweeter the Tune"
Melissa Manchester in Hats
Melissa Manchester in Hats
Hats! is a concept musical, with a story line that loosely strings together songs by myriad popular contemporary theatrical composers. It doesn't worry too much about dramatic structure but instead focuses on the musical numbers and on the engaging performances by the women who sing them.

The show eschews lofty artistic merits for more audience-friendly and easily achieved goals — entertainment and human connection. The result adds up to ninety minutes of effortless entertainment packaged in a colorful wrapping of female solidarity. The show's name and inspirational source is the Red Hat Society, which in turn was inspired by Jenny Joseph's poem "Warning,", about a middle-aged woman wearing a purple dress and a red hat to express her personal style. This self-described "playgroup" for women over fifty who believe that aging should be celebrated and enjoyed have become something of an international sensation. The red hats they don to go out on the town can be seen everywhere.

The protagonist in Hats is a woman named Mary Anne (Melissa Manchester) who has trouble embracing the Red Hat Society's philosophy. On the cusp of her 50th birthday and not happy about it, she sees a future .f discomfort and decline. However, her mother and her five friends, all Red Hat Society members, are determined to show Mary Anne that her life is really about to begin. The "dolls" are aided by Ruby RedHat, MaryAnne's fanciful puppet chaperone.

The women all have stories to tell — some are joyful and some are sad. And so, gradually, MaryAnne starts to realize that there's much to look forward to in the years ahead. The performances are in real time, with MaryAnne telling us that she can still be forty-nine for a little more than an hour. As things wind to a close, she turns fifty, just in time for the finale in which she faces the ticking clock witha newly acquired sense of adventure. The fourteen songs include two co-written by Melissa Manchester. Stylistically, the musical numbers are as varied as the characters who sing them. In content, no topic is off-limits: Kathie Lee Gifford's "I Don't Want" humorously tackles the unpleasant physical aspects of aging, while "My Oven's Still Hot" (lyrics by Anthony Dodge and Marcia Milgrom Dodge, music by Beth Falcone) reminds the audience that older women are sexy and desirable. Manchester's ballad "Invisible" addresses a more serious concern, the trend in our youth-obsessed society to discount our aging population. The spoken sections or book are credited to Marcia Milgrom Dodge and Anthony Dodge and consist mostly of monologues by the women introducing their characters, or MaryAnne riffing with Ruby RedHat.

The "dolls" are known only by their Red Hat identities — the alter egos they create for themselves in their group. All titles are based on royalty. There's the Baroness (Vickie Daignault), a savvy Texas businesswoman; the Dame (Rosalyn Rahn Kerins), a classy empty nester; the Contessa (Nora Mae Lyng), a feisty Latina; the Duchess (Laura Walls), a saucy sexpot; and the Princess (Kate Young), recently divorced but still strong. MaryAnne's mother is the Lady (Marilynn Bogetich), a widow and doting grandmother.

As for our main character, MaryAnne, played by the instantly likeable and engaging Melissa Manchester, she is the modern woman who was told that she could have it all. She does have a lovely family and a teaching career in teaching but her dream of being a writer has been put in the back seat of her life which ties in to the show's strongest message: All women should and can go after their goals and take time for themselves. showed off the acting range of.

While Manchester and her story dominate the show, she fits comfortably into the the ensemble. As for the other women, the fact that they all conform to a type makes them no less real or valid. There's something recognizable in each of them and the performers bring in a genuine warmth and vitality.

It's heartening to see a cast of (presumably) 50+ women, all brimming with talent. Rosalyn Rahn Kerins and Kate Young are strong standouts. The lively dancing includes an ensemble tap dance and a sexy Laura Walls doing a strut and shimmy. Marilynn Bogetich and Kerins show off their comic range in a "Borscht Belt"-style exchange between two "old" ladies. The color palette for the evening, as one might imagine, is largely red and purple. A giant purple bow drapes the proscenium arch and hatboxes outline the edges of the playing area. The stage is mostly bare, so that the focus can stay on the actresses. As needed, set elements roll on and off. The cute costumes by Judanna Lynn, include everything from cowgirl vests to sparkly dresses and some real show-stopperss for the finale. Obviously, we see lots of hats.

No doubt, like its previous stops in Denver and New Orleans, Hats will appeal mostly to Chicago women "in the youth of their old age" It makes for a fun night out and provides a wonderful opportunity to realize r that there's never an age limit on talent.
Book by Marcia Milgrom Dodge and Anthony Dodge
Directed by: Lynne Taylor-Corbett
Cast: Melissa Manchester (MaryAnne), Marilynn Bogetich (Lady), Vickie Daignault (Baroness), Rosalyn Rahn Kerins (Dame), Nora Mae Lyng (Contessa/Ruby), Laura Walls (Duchess), Kate Young (Princess)
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Judanna Lynn
Lighting Design: Jason Kantrowitz
Sound Design: Ben Neafus
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
The Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, (312) 988-9000
From 4/20/07 to 6/10/07; opening 4/29/07
Performance schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2:00 and 7:30pm, Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2:00 and 7:30pm, Sundays at 3:00pm
Tickets: $49.50
Reviewed by Kimberly Patterson on May 2, 2007
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