Even those who have enjoyed the tacky brassiness of musicals -- and I count myself among them, strange child that I was, having spent too many teenage hours memorizing the lyrics to West Side Story and The Sound of Music -- have to admit that most of them are simply too silly and too politically archaic to fully embrace anymore. Still, theaters keep mounting the dinosaurs, and there must still be a few true believers out there, because last Friday night the Music Hall was more than half full for Theatre Under the Stars' current show, Makin' Whoopee.
Maybe audiences are still going to musicals because sometimes they really are terrific. The London production of Carousel, which traveled to Houston via TUTS, dusted off that score's antiquated, though lovely, music, and revealed at last the dark side of Carousel's story -- which is, at its heart, about the ramifications of family violence. The production was hugely successful mostly because it wasn't willing to make nice, as previous productions had done, about a problem that a '90s audience is all too aware of.
TUTS' production of Makin' Whoopee, which began as the 1928 Ziegfeld musical Whoopee, is also an effort to put a new spin on an old show. Like Carousel, Whoopee is full of sweet, familiar songs. But it's also burdened by the heavy baggage of dated and reductive politics. So TUTS got busy refashioning this familiar tale about race and then renamed it. At first glance, the musical's story doesn't seem all that problematic: Sally, a white girl, falls in love with Wanenis, a Native American. Their struggle to be together in a world that looks unkindly on mixed-race unions is an old one, and, of course, in the end they marry and live happily ever after, though not before a good many songs and dances and corny slapstick jokes go by. The problem with the original show is not so much its basic idea, but that it's filled with stereotypic Indians who wear feathers and war paint and speak in monosyllabic utterances. "Ugh," they say, over and over again.
To deal with this, many of the new jokes in the TUTS production attempt to make ironic the musical's original representation of Native Americans. Thus, when thunder rolls and Black Eagle gets a scared face and says to his son Wanenis something along the lines of, "We better get out of here. Mountain God upset," he pauses and then adds, "Besides, it's gonna rain."
With a wink and a sideways glance, the audience is told that even the Indian knows that these ideas about Native Americans are silly stereotypes. But despite this, the Native Americans are still wearing feathers; they still speak without verbs; and they are still particularly fond of saying "How."
Over and over, the audience laughed at the show's "ironic" moments, and we even got to feel all snuggly about the idea that red men and white men can live together happily (a sentiment that is actually spoken out loud at one point during the show). And certainly, the people at TUTS removed from the original script moments that no '90s audience, except maybe a group of Klan members, would tolerate, such as a routine done in blackface by the show's white lead. They even contracted, as pointed out in the program, with a Native American cultural consultant. Nevertheless, the script is a strange one that raises as many questions as it attempts to answer. I couldn't help wondering why, of all the scripts TUTS could have chosen, they selected this one.
Perhaps they were just looking for a vehicle for the show's star, Randy Rogel, who plays hypochondriac Henry Williams with gleeful exuberance and wondrous dancing. Williams, a character originated by vaudeville star Eddie Cantor, is central to getting the two ingenues, Sally and Wanenis, together, mostly through his goofy missteps and his good-natured beliefs. Williams operates as the play's heart, its moral center. He likes people simply for who they are, and cares not a whit what they look like. Rogel is perfect as Williams. He's a small, boyishly charming actor with a wide-eyed look of wisdom, and he can out-soft-shoe the best of them.
Without Rogel, this show wouldn't be much at all. Though every performer who makes it on-stage can either sing, dance or act (sort of), nobody except for Rogel and Carol Swarbrick (who plays Henry's nurse and unlikely sweetheart, Custer) can do all three well. When Rogel exits, the show sags terribly. The set is tacky, though not tacky enough to be funny or interesting, and the kick-up-their-heels chorus-line dancing pales against more contemporary tap-dancing choreography such as that performed by, say, Stomp or Tap Dogs.
Still, there is Rogel, who gives a valiant and even memorable performance. And thankfully, Rogel never stays off-stage for long. In those few moments when he and Swarbrick share a number, as in "Love Me or Leave Me," the whole stage practically gleams with sweaty, funny and fantastic energy. Too, many of the songs are the kind of standards that most Americans will recognize, among them "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby" and, of course, the title song, "Makin' Whoopee" (of which Winston Churchill knew 39 verses).
So if you're a believer, if the ozone stories have never kept you awake at night, and if you can digest with no stomach problems the idea that all that's required to make all those nasty race problems go away is making nice with one another, then Makin' Whoopee might be just your cup of tea.
Makin' Whoopee plays through November 16 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, (800)