Chicago Theatre Review
Hooray for Hollywood
Once in a Lifetime – Strawdog Theatre
Brilliantly talented American playwright Moss Hart began working with George S. Kaufman in 1929 writing this, their first of many comedic collaborations for the stage. It opened a year later on Broadway and ran for more than 400 performances. Ironically, these two theatrical geniuses found their first hit in parodying the burgeoning Hollywood film industry, inspired by the 1927 release of Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer.” That film made history by shattering all previous box office records and by becoming the first successful commercial movie with sound. Gone were the days of the flamboyant, melodramatic silent screen stars. Actors now had to be able to properly enunciate and speak clearly enough for audiences to understand them.
Kaufman and Hart’s comedy is the story of three vaudevillian actors, May, Jerry and George, who see the writing on the wall…or, actually, in Variety. They realize that their floundering careers may soon be over and together they devise an alternative plan. Jerry figures that, with this new form of entertainment, there’s bound to be career opportunities just waiting for them in the new talking film industry. May hits upon a great idea: why not open a school to teach elocution to movie actors? Nut-munching George, who’s often a bit late to the party, follows his two longtime friends as they board a train heading for Hollywood.
On their trip west, May runs into an old friend, Hollywood gossip columnist Helen Hobart. May lies to the nosy, but influential newspaper woman that the three of them are speech instructors enjoying a brief sabbatical away from their classroom in London. Miss Hobart takes the bait and insists upon helping the trio find the necessary financial and film studio support to open a similar school for American actors. The rest of the play involves the swift ups and downs of May, Jerry and George’s newfound profession and love lives.
Everything about this magnificent production is sensational. Damon Kiely’s snappy, lightning-fast direction is extraordinary. For this wickedly, lighthearted entertainment, Mr. Kiely has whipped a dozen actors into a theatrical frenzy, guiding them in creating a myriad of madcap characters, each spitting out Kaufman and Hart’s dry, witting dialogue at a rapid-fire pace. Most of this talented company play an astonishing array of parts, and all with gleeful abandon. In starring roles, the very talented Kat McDonnell plays May with the delicious dryness of Eve Arden and the non-nonsense drive of Rosalind Russell. Jerry, May’s love interest and vaudevillian partner, is a life force, as portrayed by Strawdog ensemble member and Associate Artistic Director, Michael Dailey. Perfectly cast as George, a sweet doofus of a guy who always seems a beat behind everyone else, is the comic actor Scott Danielson.
In supporting roles, playing a variety of remarkably ridiculous characters are the wide-eyed Sarah Goeden, as the vacuous ingenue Susan Walker; Justine C. Turner, whose looks and superb comic timing are sensational as both columnist Helen Hobart and Mrs. Walker; talented, versatile character man Jamie Vann in the roles of German maniacal movie mogul, Herman Glogauer and the put-upon train conductor; and Paul Fagen is a poor, neglected, sanatorium-bound screenwriter, Lawrence Vail. Among the many other delightful characters we have two ditzy actresses in much need of elocution, played by Anderson Lawfer and the always incredibly impressive Michaela Petro. Kamille Dawkins makes an annoyingly persistent cigarette girl, among others, Nicole Bloomsmith is unbelievably clueless as the receptionist, Miss Leighton and Brandon Saunders brings an arrogance and austerity to German film director Kammerling.
There’s never a dull moment in this production. Fast-paced scene changes are made possible by Joe Schermoly’s exciting set designs, which can be disassembled, struck and replaced by an entirely new locale, at a moment’s notice. All the changes are choreographed by Mike Ford for expediency and pure entertainment value. Sound designer Heath Hays has created a delectable soundtrack of contemporary tunes that all sound properly period, from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.” They fill the silences during the two act breaks. Music director Austin Oie’s arranged additional pop hits to sound as if they’re lifted from the Roaring 20’s. All these are sung and instrumentally accompanied by the cast during the transitions. Katy Perry’s “California Girls,” is one song that dazzles and is a musical treat.
There can’t have been a better dramatic choice for the finale of Strawdog Theatre Company’s 28th season. This production highlights their talented company, as well as their unique storytelling gift, particularly showcasing so many individual actors portraying multiple roles in one play. This final production also marks the end of an era. The show ends with the company singing a 1920’s rendition of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” as the cast takes sledgehammers to the facility (this theatre is one of several venues soon to be demolished on this block). It’s a funny and bittersweet moment, at the same time. Audiences who’ve come to love Strawdog’s marvelous work are hoping to find this same kind of creativity and theatrical genius transported this Fall to their new Rogers Park home, as the company begins a new chapter of exceptional theatre. Once Upon a Time, indeed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 22-June 4 by Strawdog Theatre Company,
3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-528-9696 or by going to www.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com