In 1927, Jerome Kern composed some of the most gorgeously lush music in the history of American theater with his unforgettable score to Show Boat. But Kern and the American musical were not always so memorable. In fact, a decade before the success of Show Boat, the musical as we now know it was still emerging as its own art form in America.
Unlike the European operetta, the American musical integrated song with dialogue and emphasized character development and story lines. The plots that emerged in the nascent days of the form were often farcical comedies, focusing on mistaken identity and naughty behavior. Love was lost and won. Ladies longed for marriage above all else. And well-heeled gentlemen always behaved honorably in the end. Today these shows look and sound like quaint artifacts from an era and culture long gone. And it's this antiquated feel that's the biggest problem with Main Street Theater's production of Oh, Boy!, a 1917 Broadway hit written by Kern, P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton.
The plot focuses on a newly married couple, George (Joel Sandel) and Lou Ellen (Laura Yosowitz), who eloped and now must convince their families that they made the right choice. Trouble is, George doesn't want his Quaker guardian aunt to know about the marriage until she meets Lou Ellen and approves of her. Likewise, Lou Ellen doesn't want her parents to know until they like George. So before the two can spend one newlywed night together, they must part ways and pretend to be courting.
Main Street Theater, 4617 Montrose
Through January 17; 713-524-6706. $20-$30
George doesn't like the arrangement because he's a man, after all. And being a man, he hungers for a roll in the hay with his bride. Lou Ellen doesn't like the setup because she's a woman, after all. And being a woman, she knows that men can't be trusted on their own. Her mother has taught her well; she monitors her husband's every move, including opening and reading every telegram he receives. All this is part of her biggest ambition in life, which is to become "An Old Fashioned Wife," a goal worthy of song. She sings as she knits.
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To any modern-day thinker, George and Lou Ellen's marriage might seem like it came from hell, but it's not the source of the story's conflict. The pickle in which the turn-of-the-century newlyweds find themselves has to do with George's bachelor pal Jim (Charles Swan). Seems Jim loves all ladies. He loves them so much he even sings a song about them, "A Package of Seeds," in which he imagines growing "girlies" in his garden. While he tap-dances, four "girlies" mime growing up out of the soil.
These are the sentiments and songs that chain Oh, Boy! to its own time and make it dull stuff to contemporary audiences. The show's misogynist-moment-in-history quotient could have been mined for comedic material, but director Rob Babbitt has handled it with complete reverence. There's not a hint of irony when an ensemble of women sing about what a "Little Bit of Ribbon" can do for a woman when it comes to controlling a man. Nor is there any satire in "Flubby-Dub," a song about how much easier life was during the days of the caveman. Eight decades after it was written, this stuff is impossible to take seriously, and some recognition of that fact might have saved the production from its museumlike quality.
As it is, the actors can do little more than grin with gee-willikers cheer as they shuffle through the plodding choreography, which involves groups of singers walking forward and backward to the beat or bouncing across the stage. There are also two fairly labored tap routines, but again, they don't do much for the show as a whole. The talented Sandel manages to squeeze some comedic juice from the role of the wary, much befuddled husband. And Michelle Britton, who appears late in the show as George's Quaker aunt, chews the scenery for some comic relief as she gets plowed on what she thinks is lemonade. But otherwise, the production collapses under the weight of dust that the script has collected over the years.
As entertaining theater, Oh, Boy! saw its day come and go a long time ago. But for true devotees of the musical, one of America's only indigenous art forms, Oh, Boy! might prove interesting -- if only as evidence of how far the form has traveled.