No other play so perfectly embodies the spirit of Art Deco than Private Lives, Nool Coward's brittle, comedic battle of the sexes, which is now playing in a well-nigh perfect production at Main Street Theater. Simple but elegant, the plot's construction has Deco's geometric balance, converging lines and sensuous curves. With four main characters (and a saucy French maid added for earthy spice), the world that Coward paints is sophisticated and refined, comprised of silk dressing gowns, potted palms, smart cocktails and sharp bon mots.
His people keep the depressing world at bay by pretending not to let it bother them. Society be damned; they'll make their own life rules, thank you very much, and they sin with grace and abundant charm. It's a lost "let's be superficial" world that Coward conjures up with ease and hilarity, a world at frivolous play. The lost art of fun is splashed throughout Private Lives with delightful glee.
The plot is deceptively simple. Once married to each other, Elyot (David Downing) and Amanda (Doris Davis) are on their second honeymoons with new spouses, Sibyl (Rebecca Bivens) and Victor (Fritz Dickmann). Neither Elyot nor Amanda have quite gotten over each other, to the chagrin of their new partners, who make the mistake of constantly dredging up old memories. The surprise, of course, is that the couple's balcony suites adjoin. When Elyot and Amanda meet again after their seven-year separation, their volatile love affair flares up -- along with plenty of bickering, recrimination and passion -- and they impulsively run away to Paris, leaving Sibyl and Victor, who then chase after their wayward spouses to demand an explanation and a sensible way out of this "impending disaster."
The immorality of this impossible situation is shrugged off by Elyot and Amanda's very modern couple, who can't live together but can't live apart either. After a few minutes together at their love nest in Paris, tempers and alcohol take effect, and they're back to their love/hate relationship without skipping a beat. Coward gives us a highly polished look at this partnership, which, underneath it all, isn't as superficial as we might believe. The armor the combatants wear may be tux and bias-cut gown, but the battle's oh-so-familiar -- and, in Coward's sure hand, mighty funny. In this department, he's Oscar Wilde's descendant; the wit and cleverness here is indisputable. This is comedy with a brain behind it.
Under Claire Hart-Palumbo's satiny direction, the cast is impeccable, too; it knows exactly how to play this farce without force. As archly debonair Elyot, Downing supplies all the caustic wit and languid sophistication needed. He even looks like Coward, who played the part at the London premiere in 1930. As adversary Amanda, Davis has smoldering banks of fire underneath her panther-sleek blond exterior. She could have stepped out of any one of Ernst Lubitsch's classy Paramount films. The supporting roles are in equally capable hands with Bivens and Dickmann, who give the flighty Sibyl and pompous Victor a touch of sympathy and a soupcon of needed outrage. Sheryl Croix as the phlegmy maid who can't be bothered by her ridiculous employers makes every entrance a cause for joy. The ravishingly apt costumes by Rebecca Greene Udden and Hart-Palumbo and the minimal but telling sets designed by Jodi Bobrovsky, lit so delicately by Ethan Krupp, nail this production and bring Sir Nool and his fabulous Art Deco zoo to life.
Across town, Country Playhouse inaugurates its 50th year in regional theater with a toe-tapping big bang -- a vivacious production of Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's Tony Awardwinning musical Dreamgirls. Based loosely on the story of the Supremes, this 1981 operetta-cum-Motown production tells the story of the rags-to-riches rise of a girl trio. And this show is everything Ensemble Theater's recent Sparkle wasn't. As we proceed through the girls' climb up the pop charts, we get not only a musical history lesson through the eyes of prophetic agent Curtis (Julius Feltus IV) but also a social history lesson on how black and white influences inspired the music we hear today.
Broadway's production was a super-duper eyeful, directed and choreographed by legendary Michael Bennett (Chorus Line), complete with million-dollar computerized light towers that raced around the stage to frame the scenes. Country Playhouse has no such resources, but the show doesn't need that expensive gimmick -- it moves all by itself, with its sung dialogue scenes played backstage against what is happening out in front. CP's director Ron Jones and choreographer Monroe Moore emphasize pizzazz and sleek dance routines; this show's all about music, and it moves seamlessly.
What's missing is faster costume changes to speed up the pauses between scenes (there are a lot of costumes -- good ones by James Kessner). And the vamping by the small orchestra only goes so far. This is the kind of show where a dropped beat can be deadly -- it's got to be on the move, like the girls' career. An unintentional pause seems like minutes.
The cast, mostly young, is incredibly talented. Effie (Tamara Siler), bedeviled by confidence issues, is the spiky one, making excuses for her lateness, abrasive personality and growing waistline. Lorrell (Roenia Thompson) is the accommodating one, content to sing unknown in the background as the "doo wop" girl. When Effie's unceremoniously booted from the group because she doesn't fit the correct "look," slim, beautiful Deena (Kristina Love) is placed in the front. Effie goes into a tailspin as the newly rechristened Dreams head for Vegas.
Love affairs complicate the story, as does songwriter C.C. (Cameron Ross), who has his own idea about what the group's sound should be. Running parallel to the girls' rise is the intertwining story of James Thunder Early (Delius Doherty), whose style grows pass as the smoother Motown sound replaces his edgy R&B. Doherty is a powerhouse and stops the show more than once with his soulful renditions and gymnastic dance routines, as does Siler in her stratospheric gospel wailing of the anthem "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," as well as the equally powerful "I Am Changing."
As the Dreams sing in their provocative title song, "Dreamgirls...will always be with you." So, too, will memories of Country Playhouse's signature production of this Broadway classic.
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