EmptySegerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory (Through Oct. 5)
The world premiere of John Strand's musical adaptation of a 19th century French farce is not South Coast Repertory's finest hour. Despite the energy and enthusiasm of a large cast backed by handsome production values, the launch of the company's 40th season (and the Segerstrom Stage's 30th anniversary) seems like an out-of-town opening for a piece that needs major work if it is to make it in the big time.
It must have seemed like a good idea when dreamed up, but a lot has been lost in translation. When a horse whose owner is engaged to be married eats the hat of an amorous lady who is married, the chase is on to replace the hat if the marriage is to take place. During the course of events, the hero (Daniel Blinkoff) finds himself helped and harried by, among others, a bumptious father-in-law (Richard Doyle), a former lover (Melissa van der Schyff) and a paranoid schizophrenic (Kasey Mahaffy).
The source is Eugene Labiche's farce, which opened in Paris in 1851, but the adaptation is set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. Labiche's racy attitude is watered down to a series of labored, titillating plays on words, the original French names are retained for no good reason, and the casting director's good intentions have variable results.
Dennis McCarthy's music is mostly clippety-clop, tum-ta-tum-ta-tum, including a moderately successful attempt to parody grand opera in the finale. Overall, it recalls prim-and-proper Gilbert & Sullivan, rather than the outrageous, sexy Jacques Offenbach, Labiche's contemporary. When he reaches the climactic love duet, McCarthy incongruously reverts to a generic, contemporary Broadway style.
Strand's lyrics are long and tortuous, and his dialogue is often strained. Much of the impressively resourceful cast can act, but only some can sing in tune. There is an unfortunate and, for the company, uncharacteristic reliance on stereotypically fey characters to elicit automatic laughs (Mahaffy's Tardiveau and Patrick Kerr's Russian Viscount, in particular). The theater's amplification system often makes you wonder how small some of the cast members' voices are.
Director Stefan Novinski starts the evening with a dynamite production number during which, for better or worse, the capabilities of the cast and crew are laid out for the audience -- and he keeps the momentum going with never a hint of flagging. As the heroine, Erika Whalen is a delight, aside from a tendency of her intonation to stray. Michelle Duffy and Melissa van der Schyff are excellent in multiple roles, and Duffy sings beautifully. The men, generally, are more bluster than involving.
Scene changes are handled by a Keystone Kops pair of dancing, roller-skating stagehands (Matthew Bartosch and Jake Wells) who steal the show every time they appear.
Donna Marquet's set design, Shigeru Yaji's costumes and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's lighting are delightfully creative and ingenious in helping the production sparkle and move with a colorful brio.
Cast: Daniel Blinkoff, Erika Whalen, Richard Doyle, Kasey Mahaffy, Matthew Koehler, Melissa van der Schyff, Alan Blumenfeld, Michelle Duffy, Patrick Kerr, Damon Kirsche, Matthew Bartosch, Jake Wells. Book-lyrics: John Strand.
Director: Stefan Novinski.
Musical director: Dennis Castellano.
Scenic designer: Donna Marquet.
Costume designer: Shigeru Yaji.
Lighting designer: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz.
Sound designer: Drew Dalzell.
Musical staging: Christine Kellogg.
Casting: Joanne DeNaut.
Music: Dennis McCarthy.