Musicals, I have it on good authority, were once fun. They didn't try to knock us into comatose states with levitating mansions, like Sunset Boulevard, or make facile political points about revolution, like Kiss of the Spider Woman, or provide a vehicle for a bunch of Australian tap-dancing, like STOMP! or Hot Shoe Shuffle. No, there was a time, now long shrouded in the mists of history, when all you needed was a love story, a bunch of comedians, some fun music, and a lot of inventive enthusiasm. The barn on the outskirts of town was optional.
A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine
5th Avenue Theater until August 16
So while the nostalgia invoked by the 5th Avenue's latest offering, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, is for the bygone era of the silver screen, the real object of its affection is an age when musicals had no pretensions to do anything more than entertain. It pulls this off in grand style, and with a cast completely drawn from the local talent pool. In fact, the performers are so consistently fine that it sets me fantasizing about a sort of artistic embargo we could organize, where local actors, musicians, and dancers provide checkpoints for any road show trying to roll its inferior product into town, forcing the artists into impromptu auditions to show they know what they're doing.
This show, which was a minor hit in London and New York back about 20 years ago, is primarily a hodgepodge of whatever its producers thought might work. The first half features songs, sketches, and dance numbers all performed by a chorus of ushers and usherettes at Gruman's Chinese Theater back in the 1930s. As the setting suggests, a lot of the pieces have to do with the great musicals of the silver screen, along with such ephemera as a musical homage to film clichés and, my personal favorite, a tap salute to the 1930 Production Code governing on-screen sex and violence. Some of the material is a bit weak, like a trio of sketches about famous songwriters, but—as with vaudeville or New England weather—if you don't like what you see, wait a few minutes. There's even an extended tribute to songwriter Richard Whiting, who is primarily known for... well, OK, he's not primarily known at all. But his minor and completely charming oeuvre includes "Ain't We Got Fun," "Beyond the Blue Horizon," and "On the Good Ship Lollipop." Ellen McClain's performance of the Shirley Temple classic on a bass saxophone pretty well stops the show.
For the second half, we've got a pastiche of Marx brothers comedies titled A Night in the Ukraine, which is adapted oh-so-loosely from a Chekhov one-act play, The Bear. This is inspired source material for a Marxist scenario; a wealthy widow (Ellen McClain again, in an impeccable imitation of actress Margaret Dumont) is knocked out of her weeds by a churlish visitor (David Silverman doing an accomplished Groucho turn) who demands repayment on her husband's debt. Liz McCarthy has her work cut out for her trying for the inspired clowning of Harpo, but Richard Gray's performance as Carlo is equal parts Chico Marx and his own comic sensibilities. He's also a brilliant pianist, which gives his performance a pleasing authenticity.
Like its source material, the jokes are occasionally groan-worthy, but the songs are a lot funnier than what the brothers had to work with—particularly a delightfully interminable romantic number called Again. And how can you not admire a farce that names its romantic leads Nina and Constantine?
Chortling my way through the second half, I suddenly realized how dour and by-the-numbers so many of the musicals I've seen in the last few years are. By contrast, this show is messy and unstructured, but is never less than vastly fun, thanks to the talents of all involved, from director Stephen Terrell through to the entire cast and the gloriously crimson sets of Edie Whitsett. So though we may be on the threshold of the new millennium, I think I'd prefer to step into the way-back machine when it comes to musicals. It looks like a supremely more enjoyable time.