Between Opera and a Rocky Place

When damsels with golden ring curls find themselves tied to railroad trestles by mustachioed villains -- or, in the case of Little Mary Sunshine, strapped to a tree by a vicious Indian -- most audience members know that the lady in peril will be rescued momentarily, either by the entire U.S. cavalry or a single Canadian mountie. No one's ever explained why the Canadians are more efficient, but the hero is indeed a Man in Red in Little Mary Sunshine, the 1959 Broadway musical spoof by Rick Besoyan, which is being revived to wonderful effect by the Shores Performing Arts Theater.

But wait, you ask, just what is Little Mary Sunshine a spoof of? Well, the program notes credit "the stylized movie musicals of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald" because that's the precedent that most audience members will recognize. (For you young'uns, Eddy and MacDonald made a series of movie musicals in the '30s.) With all due respect to Hollywood, Little Mary Sunshine is a valentine to a now-obscure era of musical theater, so tipping the hat to some terpsichorean ancestors is in order.

In fact, the actress who lights the footlights at the onset of Little Mary Sunshine -- they're candles in this throwback to an earlier era -- announces that the show is paying respects to Friml and Herbert, among others. That would be Rudolf Friml and Victor Herbert, the composers who created Rose-Marie and Naughty Marietta, respectively. These two shows were extremely popular protomusicals enjoyed by your great-grandparents, which became the West Side Story and Cats of their day. Called operettas, they were examples of a theatrical form that was an intermediate link between opera and its stepchild, the Broadway musical of the '40s, '50s, and '60s, notable in part because composers attempted to integrate songs into the story rather than just paste them into slow sections of the plot.

These two operettas are the source of the Eddy-MacDonald movies, which also gave rise to their own affectionate pop-culture spinoffs. Naughty Marietta, for example, is the origin of the oft-quoted phrase -- actually the title of a song -- "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life." With its tunes "Indian Love Call" and "The Mounties," Rose-Marie owns the distinction of being the first (and perhaps the last) musical set in Canada. This show, the fourth longest-running musical of the '20s, has also been memorialized as the source of Dudley Do-Right, the lantern-jawed Canadian mountie in the The Bullwinkle Show cartoon series. Which brings us back to the damsel in distress.

Contemporary America -- a country of TV watchers -- knows about operettas (and damsels) not because our grandparents regaled us with tales of the matinee performance of Rose-Marie, but because of the hilarious and irreverent Jay Ward cartoons many of us grew up on. If they appeared on Broadway stages today, Rose-Marie and Naughty Marietta would strike most audiences as creaky and sentimental, but familiar nonetheless. In the same way that vaudeville routines have been almost unconsciously preserved and handed down to us through reruns of Car 54 and Seinfeld, Rose-Marie still lives on, albeit slightly transformed, in the person of a cartoon Canadian mountie in love with his horse.

And thanks to the fumbling but earnest Dudley Do-Right, we know that, under certain circumstances, help will come for anyone tied up against her wishes -- usually right at the last minute. Little Mary Sunshine (the original production marked the debut of Eileen Brennan) doesn't disappoint. The mountie -- or a reasonable facsimile -- shows up on schedule, as do one hostile Indian and several friendly ones (the musical exists in a universe without political correctness), half a dozen girls from a nearby finishing school, an obese outcast from Vienna, and a lecherous Washington diplomat.

Set in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado early in this century, the plot revolves around the emotional upheaval in the life of the title character (the effervescent Marcia McClain), a young woman who runs the Colorado Inn, a home and business she paid for with proceeds from cookie sales. She's tentatively in love with Capt. "Big Jim" Warington (Louis Silvers), the earnest leader of the Forest Rangers. Warington has been dispatched by the government to find and kill Yellow Feather (Christopher Vicchiollo), a hostile Native American. By no small coincidence, Yellow Feather is the unofficial brother of Mary. (She was lost as a girl and rescued by Chief Brown Bear, head of the Kadota Indians.) Mary knows that if Yellow Feather does return, he intends to have his way with her.

The story turns on Warington's confession of love just as he sets off into the wild to find Yellow Feather. If this doesn't sound like enough to propel an entire musical, then consider the closing song of Act One, sung by the Young Ladies of the Eastchester Finishing School. It's called "What Has Happened." In it Mary announces that the only thing that has happened has to do with her emotions. These young ladies -- who sing, "We've mastered some poses we do with our noses/While sticking them up in the air" -- are experiencing new emotions of their own. They're being courted by the Young Gentlemen of the United States Forest Rangers, who wonder if the women are as lovely as they seem "or rather plain." Having been deprived of female companionship for a long stretch, the men are not certain.

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