Watching the Hollywood Playhouse's new, energetic production of Beau Jest: The Musical is like attending two shows in one. As entertainment, this musical version of the popular comedy offers some sprightly tunes while retaining the original show's humor and offering a fine performing ensemble. The play draws dramatic strength from a deep pool of talent -- you'd be hard-pressed to find another South Florida musical cast as adept as this one. Through an appreciation of craft, this bunch makes the always difficult, often bewildering task of taking a musical from concept to creative fulfillment appear effortless.
The story line and much of the dialogue, borrowed directly from the play, tell the tale of Sarah Goldman, a Jewish teacher whose parents don't approve of her relationship with a gentile ad executive. Sarah pretends to break up with Chris, her unfortunately named beau, to please her parents, who keep trying to fix her up with nice Jewish boys. To fend them off, she announces she has found the perfect guy, then hires escort/actor Bob Schroeder to portray her faux fiancé, perfectly named David.
Fine so far, except when Bob arrives, Sarah learns to her dismay that he's not Jewish either. Oy. Sarah and Bob press on, thereby generating increasingly complicated fabrications and an even bigger crisis when their fake romance becomes a real one. All of this made for some amusing farce in the comedy version, and to this the musical comedy version adds a number of effective, lively showtunes, some of which conjure a certain loopy surrealism. The opening scene isn't 30 seconds old when the first big number, "I Only Want to Make You Happy," introduces most of the characters, who pop up incongruously all over Sarah's apartment, setting a witty, wacky tone. Other songs work as inner monologues, revealing through music what's thought and felt but not heard by other characters. All of this makes for an engaging production with the promise of future success.
James Sherman has adapted his play, which serves as the book for the musical, and to this has contributed some inventive lyrics. Brad Ross' music is effective and pleasing if not memorable, heavily referencing minor-key klezmer arrangements. Andy Rogow's production features a thoroughbred cast, including the real-life husband-and-wife team of Stacy Schwartz as Sarah and Wayne LeGette as Bob. Both bring significant resources to their roles. Schwartz has the most difficult task, bringing empathy and emotional honesty to the prevaricating heroine. Sarah's character arc centers the show -- she ascends from a dread of truth-telling to a more mature sense of self, a journey that sounds maudlin and might have been in lesser hands. To this, Schwartz adds a strong singing voice, though she tends to get shrill when competing with the off-stage musical ensemble. LeGette is in fine form, offering an array of talents. He has a fine romantic singing voice (for some reason, his accompaniment isn't as overpowering as Schwartz's) and his stellar number "Dr. Bob Steinberg" gets my vote as the best performance in a musical number I've seen in South Florida this century (kudos too to choreographer Andrew Fiacco). Ladd Boris does well as Sarah's acerbic, conflicted psychotherapist brother, who gets a showstopper of his own, "Jewish Blues." Sarah's parents are nicely handled by Janece Martell and Howard Elfman. And in perhaps the most inspired piece of casting of all, Stephen G. Anthony gives the rather wan character of Chris the oomph that the plot desperately needs.
Production values are appealing. Rogow's direction is crisp and efficient, as is the musical direction by Michael Larsen, who gets orchestral depth from a four-piece ensemble. Estela Vrancovich turns out some effective, fun costuming, especially for Sarah's mother, Miriam, whose every entrance is an occasion for another flashy outfit. Ian Almeida's apartment living set, heavy on the middle-class furniture and decorations, seems better-suited to the original version of Beau Jest.
The set design neatly defines one of this show's main problems: As it is now written, this project hangs suspended between play and musical. Sherman has kept the musical innovations limited to injections of numbers between bits of his dialogue. Musicals need space and air, and this one feels constricted. A large sofa blocks choreography, and most of the décor just sits there for two hours, irrelevant to the story line. Some of the story could and should be placed elsewhere, allowing more mobile, breezy staging. The show's long denouement crams a series of major emotional moments (and musical numbers explicating them) into rapid succession, a progress that lumbers along where it should slalom.
But most of all, Sherman and company have to confront a major tonal contradiction in this show. It begins as a silly satire and makes a detour into something more humane and touching. This shift is the biggest challenge ahead. I could do without the incessant Jew jokes -- it's all good-natured, of course, but the disapproving, tacky parents are stereotypes, and the gentile/Jewish jokes wear thin after a while. What's enduring is the humanity of the characters. Musicals, however, must be built, revised, and rebuilt. Beau Jest: The Musical isn't a perfect craft now or maybe ever, but it's a solid one and is bound to enjoy success beyond Hollywood.
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