Chicago Theatre Review
Moon Over Buffalo – Jedlicka Performing Arts Center
Ken Ludwig is noted for his farces, comedies and the libretti for a handful of musicals. This particular comedy, remembered primarily as the play that coaxed Carol Burnett back onto the Broadway stage, is Mr. Ludwig’s fourth, in a long career of plays. In spite of other notable works, including “The Fox on the Fairway,” “The Game’s Afoot” and the musical “Crazy for You,” none of his plays have really achieved the brilliance of his magnum opus, “Lend Me a Tenor.” This comedy, which exhibits some madcap moments, many similar to “…Tenor,” is still amusing and entertaining. However, whereas audiences needn’t be opera aficionados to enjoy “Lend Me a Tenor,” this particular play is a bit more fun for the theatergoer who’s also spent some time on stage himself.
The play demands fast-paced action and breakneck dialogue. Its characters are all bigger than life and continually bickering, insulting one another and constantly trying to get through an endless array of confusion. Like “Lend Me a Tenor,” this comedy is also a period piece (set in 1953), features heavy drinking, a womanizing male lead, with a theatrical wife who’s insanely jealous of his attention to other women, a young stage manager trying to keep everyone on track and a character who passes out and is thought to have disappeared.
The play is about a middle-aged husband and wife acting team, touring the country with repertory productions of “Cyrano” and “Private Lives.” While playing a small regional theater in Buffalo, NY, George and Charlotte, who truly love and respect each other, get into a fight. Tension mounts when Charlotte suspects that her husband is having an affair with one of the company’s younger actresses, Eileen. To complicate matters, word comes that Frank Capra, who’s filming a sequel to “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” is desperately searching for replacements for an injured Ronald Coleman and his leading lady, Greer Garson. He’s on his way to Buffalo to audition George and Charlotte. Meanwhile, Rosalind, the couple’s pretty daughter, who left acting for a more sane and secure life, has arrived to announce her engagement to TV weather forecaster, Howard. Add to this mix Charlotte’s selectively deaf, acerbic mother, who helps out backstage at the theater; Paul, Rosalind’s handsome actor/stage manager former fiancee; and Richard, the family’s lawyer, who also happens to have a thing for Charlotte. As they say, complications arise and comedy ensues.
Director Steve Calzaretta has staged Ludwig’s play with plenty of energy and wild abandon, but there are often unfortunate moments when some of his actors seem to either forget lines or lose their comic timing. There’s a great deal of running, fast entrances and exits, yelling, doors slamming and plenty of mistaken identities (always good for a laugh) and even a bit of swordplay. The backstage scenic design by Steve Calzaretta, Justin Dashiell and Rebecca Primm is authentic-looking and quite stylish, depicting the greenroom of Buffalo’s regional playhouse. There are a couple of problems with it, however. Because the set fills a stage that’s so incredibly wide, the space the cast must cover in their entrances, exits and various chases is so vast that their comic timing suffers. Additionally, there are posters of past productions embellishing the set that are suppose to have played at this Buffalo theater. It’s made very clear that the comedy’s set in 1953, but several of the window cards are for plays and musicals that haven’t even been written yet. Attention to detail in period shows is pretty important.
Jim Heatherly is a manic, sometimes over-baked ham as George. His fencing skills are admirable, his line delivery and comic timing are mostly spot on, but his ability to play drunk is a bit questionable. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy his physical humor. Anne Marie Lewis is competent as Charlotte, but the pipe curl wig she’s given looks more nineteenth century than 1950’s. The actress works well with Mr. Heatherly but never really achieves his level of comedy. Martha Hansen makes a lovable curmudgeon as Ethel, Charlotte’s mother, and James Spangler does well in the thankless role of Richard.
The standout performances in this production, however, come from the younger cast members. Josh Mattingly is hilarious as the nerdy weatherman, Howard. He’s especially excellent playing the confusion and mistaken identity, dressed in a General Patton costume, meant as a surprise gift for George. This young actor would make a perfect Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.” Mary Doctor is hilarious as the ditzy Eileen. The stage lit up whenever this accomplished actress burst onto the scene. Tyler Dickerson, as Paul, is a very impressive leading man with his handsome good looks, expert comic timing and charisma. He’s terrific, particularly when paired with the extraordinary Jennifer Vance, in the role of Rosalind. This young actress is strong, has great comic chops and can really take control of a scene. She’s especially funny in the “Private Lives” segment of this play.
As comedies go, this isn’t Ken Ludwig’s best, but it certainly offers a number of laughs and features some of the area’s finest, up-and-coming young actors, as well as a few veterans of the Chicago stage. It’s well-directed and, except for a couple of minor discrepancies in set decor, is technically excellent. This warm comedy will make audiences forget that it’s cold and snowing, just a few feet away from where they’re sitting.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 20-March 7 by the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College, Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 708-656-8000, ext. 2230.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.