Demon Rum

I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for campy sentimentality. It's part of the reason I own four pets. It's also part of the reason I like Barry Manilow. It's not at all strange, then, that I found Manilow's music and lyrics for Stages' musical The Drunkard appealing. Based on W.E. Henry's 1844 play about the evils of "devil rum," The Drunkard is the kind of entertainment that amused the upper-class theater-going public for an embarrassingly long stretch of history. Usually performed in the afternoon, plays such as the The Drunkard offered the ladies and gentlemen of society a respite from dull conversation and overwrought lunches and provided an opportunity to gaze on the leading man and lady of the day. The play has an up and down production history (it became quite popular during Prohibition), and in 1964, Bro Herrod penned a revised version of the book and Barry Manilow added songs.

Stages' production of The Drunkard is high camp and ridiculous melodrama, aided by self-parodying scenery, such as trees that spin around to conceal characters and a shade stagehands pull down to change setting. It's also an entertaining version of what over-the-top acting can do. The stock plot includes the plight of heroine Mary Middleton, whose new husband, Edward, is lured away by the evil lawyer Cribbs to waste his life on drink and loose women. The play's sympathies are with Mary, a role well played by Kitty Karn, whose operatic training provides her with enough vibrato to shake out fillings. Karn is alternatively saccharine and steadfast, and captures the comedy of her role quite nicely. The man who steals the show, however, is her foster brother-in-law and straight man, William Dowton, who has had the misfortune of running into lawyer Cribbs before. Aaron Krohn, who comes to theater with an education in philosophy, plays a low-key and wonderfully sharp Dowton, whose repeated refrain is, "Stupid though I may be from a baby to a man, I will fight for justice anywhere I can." Sporting a lightning-fast sense of timing and an ability to move, Krohn's entrances were consistently met with cheers from the audience.

Director Beth Sanford has her cast strike a series of extravagant poses to indicate various states of emotion: happy, for instance, gets a grin and index finger in the cheek, while forlorn usually equals the back of the hand to the brow, with a glance toward heaven. Such a broad approach isn't to everyone's taste, and judging from the number of empty seats after the first intermission, some in the audience found it too much to bear. For the most part, it is the songs that hold the attention in The Drunkard -- they're clever and amusing, with titles such as "Don't Swat Your Mother" (a tune sung by lawyer Cribbs).

A play about the evils of alcohol wouldn't be complete without the appearance of a prohibitionist, and The Drunkard's proponent of sobriety is the original, Carrie Nation, played by Diane Denson Tobola (who also provides the show's live piano accompaniment). Carrie Nation presents the voice of morality with lines such as, "Alcohol is the liquid highway to sin and perdition." The rest of the characters -- with the exception of Mary, her mother and her daughter -- ride that road with pleasure.

Because the outcome of the story is transparently evident (good must always triumph), the entertainment in Stages' production comes purely from the broad way it's played. And there's plenty to be entertained by -- cheesy poses aside, The Drunkard features a high level of bawdiness to keep things moving. Mary's mother, Mrs. Wilson, played by Colleen O'Kit, gyrates in front of her needlepoint hoop and caresses the available body parts of any man who will let her do so; David Grant as Cribbs lewdly slobbers over Mary, and saloon girls drape themselves over her fallen husband, Edward. All this provided no end of amusement to one faction of the audience on opening night. The group became so boisterous that even the actors seemed a bit bewildered when shouts of "Do it!" were heard during a scene in which Cribbs has Mary in his menacing grasp. A bit of etiquette, readers: enthusiasm is most politely measured by applause.

As amusing as the acting can be, the two major high spots both relate to Manilow's lyrics -- the first coming in the ensemble's song and dance number "She's a Maid No More," with Karn adding her trilling vibrato at key moments, the second coming during Karen Ross' solo as Julia, Mary's daughter, titled "Julia's Song." Even if one hated Manilow, it would be nearly impossible not to be entertained by the subversiveness of lyrics such as, "Whenever I feel blue / I just go find some grass." It's possible, given that Ross frolics around on a picnic mat and appears to be playing with grass of the lawn variety, that most of the audience missed the joke. But then the song goes on to recommend, "stuff grass in your joints," a suggestion pretty hard to misinterpret.

As goofy and, admittedly, even numbingly stupid as The Drunkard can be, it still offers a consistent package of well-tuned parody and clever performance. It's not exactly soul-filling theater, but it is amusing.

The Drunkard plays at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, through July 14, 527-0220.

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Megan Halverson