Cole Porter and Moss Hart's Jubilee, a bony old musical from the mid-1930s, has been gathering dust for decades -- and for good reason. The silly little show concerning the woes of four unsatisfied royals who must rule despite their rather plebeian desires to spend their days swimming and shopping "in Macy's basement" has virtually nothing to say to a contemporary audience. Still, in the name of "rediscovering lost musicals," theater companies have begun reviving this bit of fluff: London's West End dredged it up last year, and now Main Street Theater rings in the new year with a concert-style production of Jubilee.
The royal four include The King (Robert Beare), who has trouble remembering which hand to raise for a proper kingly wave. When not confused over protocol, he spends his days learning magic tricks, since he figures prestidigitation is a better motivational tool for the commoners than a long-winded speech. The Queen (Michelle Britton) makes all the major decisions, but she's bored senseless. All she wants to do is watch a Tarzan-like film (pronounced here as "fil-lum") starring swimmer extraordinaire Charles Rausmiller (Mark Trahan).
The ennui caused by "the dull routine of being the royal family" has spread to the two grown-up children: Prince James (Tye Blue) mopes about, craving only the company of torch singer Karen O'Kane (Karen Ross), while Princess Diana (Bethany Daniels) pouts through her duties and secretly dreams of meeting the playwright of the day, Eric Dare (Larry D. King).
Such are the woes of kings and queens as imagined by Porter and Hart, whose main, apple-pie intention, it would seem, was to espouse the simple pleasures of life. Of course, the royals have to leave the castle in order to discover such joys. A very goofy plot twist sends the four from the castle for their own protection. They're supposed to be whisked safely away to Feathermore, the "very nasty castle in the north," but instead they sneak out of the castle and into the lives of the commoners. Incognito, they rub elbows with the everyday folk and learn a thing or two about life along the way.
Once free, the four go about the business of finding themselves, which apparently means becoming a bunch of groupies. Each meets and falls for the star of their dreams (such are the simple pleasures in life). The King hooks up with socialite Eva Standing (Kimberly Nicole), who discovers him doing his magic trick and decides to show him off at one of her elaborate parties.
There is something positively naive about this dated script. Written two decades before Oklahoma! and Carousel reinvented the musical form, the story that strings together the tunes in Jubilee feels like a half-baked afterthought. And while two of Cole Porter's greatest songs rise up out of the mess, "Just One of Those Things" and "Begin the Beguine," the music is often too dated to hold interest.
The cast is for the most part competent, but nobody is helped by Robert Kislin's stiff and unimaginative direction. For some reason he has decided to keep the performers upstage throughout most of the show. The Queen sings "There's Nothing Like Swimming" as she splashes through cutout cardboard waves in what is potentially a cute bit, but the entire thing has been choreographed with a strange and clumsy reserve. Kislin takes little advantage of Britton's wonderful comic energy and timing; instead, he leaves the talented actress to flounder somewhat awkwardly through the scene.
Karen Ross is sent behind the piano to sing the gorgeous standard "Begin the Beguine." As a result, so much of her sound is lost before it reaches the audience, she might as well be mouthing the words.
Robert Beare's King is very likable, and Beare has one of the strongest voices in the cast, but again, the character is too quiet, too stuffy for this childlike show. There is no room for subtlety in a silly script that calls for as much clowning as it does acting.
Bethany Daniels and Tye Blue make a very attractive princess and prince, but Daniels's thin soprano warbled uncomfortably through the high notes of her long solo "Why Shouldn't I?"
The cast, however, worked very hard to keep up their energy throughout the night -- as did much of the audience, I'm afraid. A show with so little to offer, other than a few giggles and a few good tunes, shouldn't be this much work. It ought to be easy, lighthearted entertainment. It ought to be a simple pleasure.
Jubileeruns through January 16 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Boulevard, (713)524-6706. $15-$20.
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