Freud Playhouse, UCLA (Through May 18)
For the season finale of the Reprise series, artistic director Jason Alexander's choice of "Flora the Red Menace" makes sense.
In 1965 it was John Kander and Fred Ebb's first Broadway production, and though it was only a qualified success, it was shot through with the kind of deeply felt quality, attitude and energy that characterized the remarkable string of hits that followed including "Cabaret" and "Chicago." That it also featured some warmed-over leftist political sentiments which sort of fit the 2008 election season must have made it seem like even more relevant a choice.
The production is hampered by using the play-within-a-play book that David Thompson wrote for the 1987 revival, as if it were being produced by the minimally resourced Federal Theatre Project.
The gratuitous layer of nostalgia and political rhetoric that the setting lays on what is not the most brilliant of scores nor the most focused of productions, takes the froth off what might have been a delightful divertimento.
The characters who come together in a New York artistic collective do make up a representative menu of the kind of stereotypes that we have come to recognize from the mid-1930s when the government openly encouraged social activism against both the underlying causes of the Depression and the low morale that resulted.
There's a bubbly song and dance team (Wilkie Ferguson, Katie O'Toole, relentlessly charming but stylistically at odds), an out of work Jewish jeweler-turned-philosopher (Gibby Brand), a dressmaker (Katherine von Till), an Armenian intellectual and the main love interest (a resourceful Manoel Felciano), an evil capitalist (Perry Ojeda) and an over-the-top Party operative (Megan Lawrence).
The there's Flora (Eden Espinosa), who wanders innocently into a crossfire of political and romantic entanglements which threaten her sense of self until she gets her head screwed on right, saves a bunch of department store workers, and finds peace and contentment at the end.
Unfortunately, Espinosa, who was so memorable as the green-faced Elphaba in the Los Angeles production of "Wicked," only intermittently displays the edgy spirit that would make the audience care about her continually wrong-headed plight. By contrast, Lawrence's party hack is a continual thrill, flashing real acting chops and a shtick a smile wide that instantly win her the hearts of the audience.
The production in the vast reaches of the Freud Playhouse at UCLA easily simulates the kind of industrial warehouse setting Thompson had in mind. The props and backdrops are clearly visible, as are the actors walking in the wings.
Putting the four-piece band right in the middle of things is another nice touch.
However, the sound is badly miked and fed into tinny-sounding loudspeakers flanking the stage; often, when a singer is performing center stage, their voice seems to be coming from 20 feet away. And the costumes, whether they are intended to be proletariat or upper-middle class, are, with the exception of a cute outfit of red buttons for Lawrence, either boring, ill-fitting, just plain ugly, or all three.
VENUE: Freud Playhouse, UCLA (Through May 18)
CAST: Eden Espinosa, Manoel Felciano, Megan Lawrence, Katie O'Toole, Katherine von Till. DIRECTOR: Philip Himberg. BOOK: David Thompson. MUSIC: John Kander. LYRICS: Fred Ebb.