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A CurtainUp Review

True History and Real Adventures
There's a moment in the first act of Sybille Pearson's True History and Real Adventures when Kathleen Chalfant dressed in a tuxedo and top hat, presses a mustache to her upper lip and does one of the funniest song and dance numbers I've seen in quite a while. Ms. Chalfant is what you'd call a sprechsinger (shades of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady) but her comedic skills outweigh any shortcomings in the vocal department. Her Count of Glumbowitz, the rich foreigner whose patronage promises entree into the American Dream for a young gang of adventurers is an inspired creation.

After her much applauded stint as the terminally ill Dr. Vivian Bearing, in the Pulitzer award winning Wit, (linked below) Ms. Chalfant certainly deserves to have some fun. And so she does in this blend of road film and Wizard of Oz western. Besides the dashing cake walking Count, she plays the colorful Western legend Calamity Jane (the real Calamity as well as an actress in a play within the play) and a handful of other characters. Unlike Dr. Bearing, who never got out of her hospital gown, these multiple characters wear an array of colorful late nineteenth century costumes.

The costumes as well as the sets, both by G. W. Mercier, are another reason to catch this show during its limited run at the Vinyeard theater. Mercier has transformed the stage into a sepia version of the toy Pollack theaters that have found their way from Great Britain to many museum gift shops. The mock theater that envelops the stage creates an atmosphere of fun even before the lights dim. Anticipation builds as a bowler hatted David Alan Bunn sits down at an upright piano at the foot of the stage. In another show, T.O.B.A., (linked below) Bunn proved that he could occasionally play with his feet as well as his hands -- and he repeats this trick here, though only fleetingly.

Despite all the parts that Kathleen Chalfant plays, she is not the star. Her pivotal character, Calamity Jane, is more an idea, a destination -- like the wonderful wizard at the end of the yellow brick road. The most consistent on-stage presence is Angela Goethals as Mary Mackenzie a young Scottish girl.

Mary is so taken by a wild west show about Calamity Jane that she becomes convinced that the legendary Jane holds the key to finding a better life. She meets four other teen agers, from different fringes of turn of the century society who are headed to Chicago in pursuit of the American Dream: Rafe Bandemann (Donovan Patton), Dewi Owens (Daniel Bess), Sylvie De Vionnet (Adrienne Carter) and Abram Henry (Damon Gupton). Rafe, the group's planner (his inspiration is Andrew Carnegie) persuades Mary to join her dream with theirs so off they go like Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion etal.

The journey begins on a note of high hope and spirits with the gang riding the rails (smartly evoked by Bruce Ellman's sound design) to Chicago. The Columbian World Exposition is the perfect place to put Rafe's first money-making plan to the test. To sell a Viagra-like patent medicine, the gang puts on a show demonstrating its effectiveness. Dollars roll in and things look rosy. But this is a journey towards truth and a major economic depression is their first confrontation with the real and often dangerous world of their dreams. Undaunted, the adventurers head further west. Their journey becomes a mix of romance (Mary and Rafe fall in love, as do Sylvie and Abram) and tragedy (the melancholy young Welchman, Dewi, embodies the dark side of the story with his love affair with alcohol and cocaine).

Ms. Goethals is an energetic and attractive strawberry blonde, and she engages you for the first part of the play. However, her Mary is no match for Dorothy (nor do her friends add the weight of the Oz-bound group). About the same time that the "real adventures" become weighed down in repetitive and distracting detours, so Mary's mannerisms begin to pall (think of President Clinton's lip biting). Though the actors all do good work, when Ms. Chalfant is not on stage everything seems to slow down and lose steam.

There are other problems. True History validly bills itself as a play with music. Unfortunately what composer Mel Marvin provides is not nearly as satisfying as his delightful and apt score for The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show. The staging and story seem to beg to be a real musical but Marvin provides just one good number, "Hard Times." The rest, including Mr. Bunn's scene setting announcements seem superfluous.

True History, like the Prairie Show (see link below), has the earmarks of a terrific and inspiring family saga -- but it would play a lot better without two violent deaths and a blue pencil (for starters, the woman who works in the house of ill-repute and brings in the issue of blacks seeking freedom and justice in Liberia belongs in another play). Ms. Pearson would have done well to bear in mind John Mortimer's words in the New York Times obituary on John Osborne: "He aimed his Swiftian fusillades at all those would turn the world gray in the name of political correctness."

The Portable Pioneer and Prairie Show

by Sybille Pearson
Directed by Michael Mayer
Musical Score: Mel Marvin
The Gang, in order of appearance: Angela Goethals, Donovon Patton, Daniel Bess, Adrienne Carter, Damon Gupton,
The Calamity Jane Players and Other Characters, in order of Appearance: Kathleen Chalfant, Wally Dunn, John MichaelGilbert, Aleta Mitchell
Piano Player and musical director: David Alan Bunn
Set Design: G. W. Mercier
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Bruce Ellman
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including 10 minute intermission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 12/15/99 performance

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