Poor Richard, everyone says in Jean Kerr's romantic comedy -- so talented, such a waste.
The characters are talking about the best-selling poet Richard Ford (Kent Johnson), whose slim volume "The Girl with a Velvet Ribbon" has made Richard a very rich, famous writer. Unfortunately, the girl in question, his beautiful socialite wife, has died, leaving him bereft and guilt-ridden, finding solace in any liquor bottle at hand. Richard revels in being drunk as much as he does in being a wicked wit. He also suffers from monumental writer's block, much to the annoyance of publisher-editor Sydney (George Brock), who wants another literary cash cow as soon as possible. To facilitate Richard's output and keep him sober, Sydney sends in his ace assistant -- and fiance -- Catherine (Shannon Emerick) to be his secretary. She is levelheaded and efficient to a fault. Cleaning up Richard's apartment the morning after a night of debauchery, Catherine delicately picks up wayward lingerie with a letter opener, as if it's infectious. She knows exactly what this poor, suffering artist needs to get back on track: She will marry him. For once, Richard is speechless.
Since Poor Richard is a Jean Kerr play, nobody stays silent for long. Kerr was once a household name, as famous a playwright as she was a mother and housewife. She had phenomenal success with her nonfiction memoir Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1957), which comically detailed the antics of raising a family in suburbia, as well as her comedy Mary, Mary (1961), which at one time held the record for the longest-running show on Broadway. Her easy outlook in dealing with domestic life vs. celebrity, coupled with a quick, graceful wit, is most appealing.
The three main characters are extremely well-drawn, involving and likable. Richard's raffish, lovable rogue is hard to beat, and Johnson wears his world-weary attitude as if it's Armani. He almost twinkles when he savors Kerr's numerous witticisms. Emerick gives no-nonsense Catherine a freshness that pairs beautifully with Richard's edges. She dilutes his alcohol with dew. Brock transforms publisher Sydney's ordinariness into virtue. But the heartbreak within Kerr's comedy is deep and affecting, too, especially when Meghan Hakes, as Richard's fashionable sister-in-law, reveals the cracks in his personal foundation, infusing her brief scene with chilling propriety.
You never feel as if these people are secondary to what Kerr has to say -- they are the story, which makes this a very "well-made" play. It's nice and tidy, and it's comfortable to sit through, with fast, snappy dialogue. We want to hear what they all have to say. There may be two or three themes too many for what Kerr bites off, but what's there, even when sketchy, is a tasty meal of words, deliciously served.
Hail the Queen
Speaking of tasty treats, there's a 15-foot-tall drag queen now on parade at Houston Grand Opera, and you've never seen anything like her before. A grotesque concoction of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, with a touch of Disney's Cruella DeVil in the white hair streaks, Marlene Dietrich in the eyelashes and Jenna Jameson in the mammaries, she is the magnificent witch in HGO's imaginative, puppet-infused production of Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. She makes a "star turn" entrance, too, bursting out of her sumptuous candyland house, an immense vision in billowy red satin, ripe and ready to fatten up little Hansel and bake him into a cookie. She's the one, though, you want to eat up.
Underneath the voluminous gown are three puppeteers, a camera crane, various high-tech gizmos and cranks, and the tenor Liam Bonner, who all bring this wicked colossus to glorious life. Her demise -- into a tiny fireplace instead of a Sweeney Todd-size bake oven -- is a bit anticlimactic, owing to conductor Kathleen Kelly's chamber-music reduction of Humperdinck's Wagnerian 1893 orchestration, which removes much of the tone and color (and shimmer) from the orchestra. The 1893 opera's celebrated interludes (the Transformation scene and the Witch's Ride) sound downright puny and underserved here, although in quieter moments, Kelly's octet does Humperdinck proud. As for the libretto, the awkwardly rhyming English translation of the German is lumpy and shoehorned onto Humperdinck's pseudo-folk melodies so as to kick all of the timeless universality right in the pants.
The singers, all young artists under HGO's training, are exceptionally good, but not even Orpheus could compete with the wizardry of master puppeteer Basil Twist's eye-popping, Technicolor production. While Humperdinck gets a back seat, a vulture, butterflies, 14 floating angels, a paw-tapping cat whose tail beats time to the music -- and that fabulous witch! -- keep your eyes and heart thoroughly involved.
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