Los Angeles Theater Review: GIRL CRAZY (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Tony Frankel on June 12, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Prior to curtain at Musical Theatre Guild’s concert staging of Girl Crazy, we were warned that the Gershwin brothers’ 1930 musical was written before “the code” (read: censorship), so “expect to be offended.” Well, thank God. I am rather tired of inoffensive theater. Besides, the one memorable thing about Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan’s insipid libretto is the political incorrectness. Jokes referencing Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of Musical Theatre Guild's "Girl Crazy."Chinese cooks, Mexican hotel proprietors, doofus cowpokes, and gambling womanizers are all fair game. Still, most of the jokes are dubious groaners. What made the evening more than tolerable, besides a gold nugget-filled score and a rock’em sock’em ensemble, was MTG’s whimsical approach. Director Lewis Wilkenfeld ensured that the cast’s collective tongue was firmly entrenched in cheek, even allowing the occasional ad-lib, which is more than apropos as you do NOT want to take this script seriously.

Written at a time when shows were constructed piecemeal – a comic star here, a songwriting team there, whoever was available, really – the plot is often something to endure until we get to the next great tune. And what tunes. You wanna talk about gems? How’s about “But Not For Me,” “Embraceable You,” “Bidin’ My Time,” and “I Got Rhythm” for a start? (The latter made a Broadway star out of original cast member, 22-year-old Ethel Merman, who was just an on-the-rise singer prior to opening night.)

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of Musical Theatre Guild's "Girl Crazy."I’m not gonna lie. Because the long show is short-handed in the hoofing department (Lisa Hopkins’ supplied the by-the-numbers choreography), that unbelievable libretto hangs over the proceedings like a hangman’s rope ready to strangle the audience into tedium. There have been many versions of Girl Crazy, but MTG uses the original, which begins with the foolhardy rich boy Danny Churchill, who has been sent by his dad to the cow town of Custerville, Arizona to oversee the family ranch and therefore diminish his penchant for cash-draining showgirls. Danny decides to bring the showgirls to him by turning the place into a Dude Ranch where a saloon just happens to be suitable for Broadway showstoppers. Even though showgirls start to pour in from New York (hey, this was the Depression – a gal’s gotta work), Danny falls for local postmistress, Molly Gray. (Molly is the role which made 19-year-old Ginger Rogers a star; she signed with Paramount that same year. Oh, and Rogers met someone for the first time during rehearsals: an uncredited dance coach for Girl Crazy named Fred Astaire.)

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of Musical Theatre Guild's "Girl Crazy."Danny arrived from New York to this Podunk by cab, driven by taxi driver Gieber Goldfarb, a role that was actually written for Bert Lahr, who passed on the project due to contractual issues. Fortunately, MTG brought in guest artist and top banana Nick Santa Maria, who brought a riotous Vaudevillian sensibility to this silly role. Mr. Santa Maria turned the second act into a comic mine field with his deadpan delivery, slow burns to the audience, and comic timing as razor-sharp as Ira Gershwin’s lyrics. Far and away, the evening’s standout was his rendition of “But Not For Me,” in which he immaculately imitated Maurice Chevalier, Al Jolson, Jimmy Durante, and the great Bert Lahr himself (ironically, he impersonated Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, a role which appeared nine years after Girl Crazy first opened).

I wish more of the leads had that same goofy sensibility and distinction, but they were clearly having a blast. Roger Befeler caressed the crowd with his crooning as Danny, and Jennifer Malenke sounded lovely in the thankless role of Molly. Christopher Carothers is rightfully channeling Dan Duryea as Slick Fothergill, whom Danny hires to run the gambling operation, and Misty Cotton belts the livin’ bejesus Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of Musical Theatre Guild's "Girl Crazy."out of the Merman tunes in her role of Slick’s wife, Kate. Slick and Kate regularly spar and reconcile; this way, Kate can tell Molly that men are like streetcars: Wait a few minutes and another comes along; and if you wait long enough, the first one comes back around. Right on schedule, Danny and Molly go through the old-fashioned boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl routine: She falls for the devious wiles of Danny’s nemesis from New York, Sam Mason (a wisecrackin’ Brent Schindele).

Gieber Goldfarb gets roped into running for sheriff, a job which is often available since erstwhile law enforcers kick the Custerville bucket with alarming frequency. As Lank Shannon, the threatening bully who also wants to be sheriff, Stan Chandler goes full-out burlesque, but I wasn’t certain if he was channeling Frank Fontaine’s “Crazy Guggenheim” or Stan Freberg’s “Pete Puma.” As his sidekick Pete (originally a Mexican bandit), Jeffrey Polk had trouble mining laughs as he… well, I don’t know what he was going for, actually.

The MTG orchestra did fine under Richard Berent’s leadership, but sadly lacked the jazziness and character one would associate with Gershwin’s terrific music. I know it costs a chunk of change to get more musicians, but we didn’t even get a hint of Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations. By the way, can you imagine the sound on opening night in 1930 with George Gershwin conducting the once-in-a-Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of Musical Theatre Guild's "Girl Crazy."lifetime pit band, which included Red Nichols, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden?

I wasn’t crazy about Girl, but I’m wild about Musical Theatre Guild, which could have gone even further to beat the dead horse-of-a-script into submission. As MTG prepares their upcoming 4-show season at the Moss Theatre, their snazzy new digs in Santa Monica, I’m hoping they can up the ante in production values (you can help by getting a season subscription). In the meantime, hats off to Mr. Nick Santa Maria and a few other game cast members who actually had me chortling with abandon – a rare feat in the theater.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema LA review of Musical Theatre Guild's "Girl Crazy."production photos by Stan Chandler

Girl Crazy
Musical Theatre Guild
played June 10, 2013
Alex Theatre in Glendale
final performance plays June 16, 2013
Scherr Forum in Thousand Oaks
for info and tickets, call 818.848.6844
or visit http://www.MusicalTheatreGuild.com

{ 1 comment }

Ralph Edens June 13, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Your pre-curtain speaker was very ill-informed (and in the Los Angeles area, no less). The “Production Code” was a Hollywood thing that had nothing to do with the Broadway stage. Plenty of naughty/adult humor and situations thrived on B’way (lyrics included), which then had to be toned down for radio broadcast or for film versions.

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