BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Once In a Lifetime
Now on the boards is revival number three with television actress Lauren Graham of The Gilmore Girls playing May, the distaff member of a rarely employed vaudeville trio seeking a change of luck in Hollywood. May dreams up their first career changing scheme, an elocution school for the squeaky-voiced silent film stars transitioning to talkies at a Sam Goldwyn-ish mogul's studio. When the mogul fires them, good-hearted but not too bright George's outburst transforms him into the mogul's golden boy. He takes charge of a film which will predictably be a disaster, only to have that disaster turned on its head by the time the curtain falls. (For more plot details and some background about Kaufman and Hart, read my review of another production of the show here).
In 1930, poking fun at business incompetence gave Lifetime relevance and sharpened the satire's bite. It almost, and according to Brooks Atkinson should have, won the Pulitzer Prize. However, the success of the show seeded so much borrowing (think Boy Meets Girl, Singing In the Rain, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Bullets Over Broadway, The Producers) that the the flattery of imitation gives current revivals a too familiar, dated quality that no recent production has managed to overcome. That's why for this critic, seeing Once In a Lifetime once is almost one time too often. Having had my "once" viewing just four years ago in a stylish but ultimately sluggish Off-Broadway production I almost decided to lighten my summer schedule by skipping this second WTF Main Stage offering. However, after another golden oldie, Where's Charlie?, proved to be an utter delight, it became more compelling to see if director Michael Greif had found the key to give this production something beyond its nostalgic appeal, perhaps unlocking the quality that gave a fresh feel to the revival of June Moon (by Kaufman and Ring Lardner) a few Off-Broadway seasons ago and this season's WTF opening hit.
Even with Peter Frechette, who most recently dazzled me in Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle, playing the hapless playwright who having heeded the lure of Hollywood lucre, now finds himself in a Kafkaesque limbo of having nothing to do, Once In a Lifetime once again captures the over-the-top burlesque spirit and 1920s-30s Hollywood flavor only intermittently. It thus remains a revival that's become superfluous. To be sure, Frechette does not disappoint, especially with one show-stopping monologue. Neither does Kristine Nielson as a self-important Louella Parsons-Hedda Hopper type gossip columnist. Lauren Graham, looks charming but lacks the wise-cracking wit that the role of May requires.
As usual nothing has been spared to make this a gorgeous to look at, full-featured production. The sizeable cast even includes two handsome dogs (it wouldn't be summer at Williamstown without at least one four-legged thespian traipsing across the stage).
Director Greif keeps the large cast in motion but does little to help make the dialogue sparkle. His most original idea, abetted by Allen Moyer's sets and Elalne J. TMcCarthy's projections, is the staging of the first few scenes. The bare sound stage seen as you take your seat metamorphose into a movie screen which comes alive with Al Jolson singing "Toot, Toot Tootsie Goodbye ". The screen then rotates to reveal the hotel room where May, George (Tom Riis Farrell) and Jerry (Tate Donovan) wait for vaudeville gigs. When the threesome heads for Hollywood, it's back to the screen which now projects a train speeding cross-country as Jolson sings "California Here I Come". Moyer's ensuing Hollywood sets are equally eye-popping, as are Linda Cho's costumes.
Unfortunately, the snazzy scenery and costumes tend to add to the sense of a play that looks like a musical, but instead assaults you with dialogue full of jokes that often fall flat. Its original three acts with two intermission are uncut and seem to last a lifetime, especially in the middle.
My criticisms of Lifetime notwithstanding, WTF producer Michael Ritchie deserves credit for once again affording audiences the pleasure of seeing a stage filled to the brim with some fifty actors. Also, this return of Lifetime to Williamstown is smartly paired with the Nikos Stage premiere of a new play, Moving Picture, also related to the moving picture industry. Since Nikos Stage presentations aren't open for review, I'll leave it to readers to evaluate that play's take on the creation of the technical apparatus that seeded the madcap Hollywood world being so lavishly resuscitated on the Main Stage.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.