LA Theater Review: I’M JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY (Crown City Theatre Company in North Hollywood)

by Tony Frankel on August 6, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

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MARK ME DOWN AS MILD ABOUT HARRY

What’s a critic to do when he desperately wishes to support Los Angeles theatre, but also desires to hold theatre to a higher level? During the intermission of I’m Just Wild About Harry at Crown City Theatre, one patron’s comment summed up this critic’s complex condition perfectly: “You have to take it for what it is.”

What is it? A cute and silly jukebox musical based on Brandon Thomas’ wildly popular 1892 English farce  Charley’s Aunt, in which two undergrads convince their friend Babbs to impersonate a rich aunt from Brazil so that they can woo their girlfriends. The low comedy is no literary gem, especially considering its contrivances (such as three long-lost loves that happen to converge in the same place at the same time) and placidly risqué wit (such as the triple-meaning of Brazil nuts). Its endurance no doubt stems from the public’s insatiable appetite for a man hamming it up in a dress – a phenomenon that didn’t hurt Uncle Miltie or Harvey Fierstein either.

I’m Just Wild About Harry, A musical adapted from Brandon Thomas's "Charlie's Aunt" - Crown City Theatre Company in North HollywoodCo-artistic directors Gary Lamb and William A. Reilly “updated” the piece from Oxford University to Milwaukee U circa 1910, inserting popular hits from the era, such as “K-K-K-Katy” and “Margie.” As such, the girlfriends’ names are changed from the original play: Amy is now Katy and Kitty is now Margie. And where’s Charley? He now appears as Harry so that Eubie Blake’s “Wild About Harry” can be inserted as the Act One closer. The result is an entertainment that my companion summed up as, “Not un-cute.” The creators may have achieved their goal of creating escapist fare that contains equal parts nostalgia and intrinsic charm, but they missed the mark for a truly satisfying evening.

I’m Just Wild About Harry, A musical adapted from Brandon Thomas's "Charlie's Aunt" - Crown City Theatre Company in North HollywoodNo doubt audiences accustomed to the innutritious fluff of jukebox musicals will look past the problems in this adaptation, but the random addition of musical numbers chops up the pacing that made Thomas’ bawdy script so tolerable. (There were a few occasions wherein musical numbers ended and the audience was completely still, beginning their scattered applause only once the characters began speaking.)

Also missing was the razor-sharp timing that is crucial if such silly material is to succeed. A particularly unfunny bit has the character of Harry (a miscast Matthew Thompson) stutter when he is nervous (a set-up for “K-K-K-Katy”), and his numbers with roommate Jack (an adorable Mikhail Roberts) prove that top-notch song-and-dance men are needed. Most of the musical segments feel like neighborhood theatre and sorely lack a sense of professionalism. This is also Mr. Roberts’ fifth outing with Crown Center, which tells me that they are not interested in seeking talent outside of their own circle that may be better suited to such an outing. In fact, the majority of the cast – which suffices as well – has appeared at Crown Center before; the lack of distinctive casting left me wanting more.

I’m Just Wild About Harry, A musical adapted from Brandon Thomas's "Charlie's Aunt" - Crown City Theatre Company in North HollywoodAlso, the musical must be about Babbs, the impersonator of the dowager aunt. As the title suggests, too much time is spent on Harry and other characters, largely due to the addition of the Victorian pop songs. Although Douglas Thornton is spectacular and has a field day in the role, it’s a shame that he was not handed more cigar-chomping antics. The potential of this show is fully realized when Mr. Thornton sparks up the stage with his song, “Runnin’ Wild” (adapter and music director Reilly nimbly plays the piano with such inventive and red-hot filler that it’s surprising the keys did not catch fire).

There is little that is inadequate about this production, but what could be a rip-roaring laugh-fest feels more like a cute, safe, and grown-up Little Rascals backyard show. I see the potential for a significantly better entertainment, but you, the audience, may go ahead and take it for what it is.

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

I’m Just Wild About Harry
scheduled to end on August 14
for tickets, visit http://www.crowncitytheatre.com or call 818.605.5685

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