By Jef With One F
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Given anyone the middle-finger salute on the freeway recently? Bought coffee at Starbucks while chatting on your cell phone? Eaten dinner with your elbows on the table? Oh you naughty, naughty Houstonians — Main Street Theater has a show for you. Indeed, Ps and Qs: the ABCs of Manners, a world-premiere family musical by Steve Garfinkel, featuring tunes by Trout Fishing in America, has a message for us all.
For the uninitiated, the four-time Grammy-nominated Trout Fishing in America is comprised of two guys named Keith Grimwood and Ezra Idlet, who've made a name for themselves writing and performing for families. Their albums have titles like My Name Is Chicken Joe and Big Trouble. Hilariously kid-friendly, their tunes also appeal to grownups, which makes them a perfect match for Main Street's musical, intended, as it is, for everyone in the family.
Shaped like a radio show along the lines of A Prairie Home Companion, Garfinkel's story follows what happens one night both on and off the air of a radio broadcast program, also named Ps and Qs: the ABCs of Manners. Starring the diva-like Jillian Ledbetter (Shondra Marie), who claims to know every little thing one needs to know about manners even though she herself behaves like a beast, the show moves through several segments as it covers everything from the repercussions of being tardy to the history of table manners.
One of the best segments stars the character Louis Kent (Micah Stinson) as "The Late Great Nate McTate," who is so important to the show he's got a song named after him. Scenes from Nate McTate's life are woven throughout the narrative, and we learn about all the ways one can be late, starting with school. Nate is perpetually tardy with his assignments at the Leona Helmsley school (inside jokes for the adults abound), and he's gone through an entire notebook of excuses already. By the end of the radio show, we get to a scene featuring grown-up Nate — this time, he's late for work, and it costs him more than a paddling.
The radio show also features several run-ins with "The Manners Police," who stop an "audience member" who dares to chat on his phone during the show. The boy sitting next to me just about jumped out of his chair when The Manners Police marched off the stage and into the audience.
Adults will find the segments on the history of table manners both funny and informative. Starting with two cave couples, the segments move on to the Renaissance period and offer interesting sociological tidbits, such as that the notion of placing the knife facing the eater comes from fear of aggression. If the knife is facing the eater, he's indicating that he won't pick it up and stab his neighbor with it. When we get to Victorian England, the list of rules grows unbearably long and includes such no-nos as "don't take soup twice" and "do not command the servers," unless you want to look like you're from the servant class. Good to know.
Lots of other silliness fills the hour-and-a-half show. There's a game show called "Rude or Not Rude." One can learn not to cuss from the Spensky method, which teaches guys like Gus the Cuss to use lingo from a list that includes "Twaddle, Doo Dah and Crankshaft" instead of everything that gets bleeped out. These words get picked up by all the characters on the show, and by the end, everyone's using them.
Under Mark Adams's direction, Ps and Qs really does work as a family show. With a wink and a nod toward the grownups, the characters go about delighting the children. There's dancing — yes it's a radio show, but Jillian Ledbetter's daughter Lillian (Chelsea Ryan McCurdy) lives to dance. The internal strife that's causing all the rude behavior between the radio show's performers when the show is off the air does eventually get addressed, and we learn that, of course, the most important rule is the golden one. Following it will help make sure that your hearts in the right place, even if your elbows aren't.