The Pearl Theatre Company is now presenting half of a really great production of She Stoops to Conquer.
And they picked the right half of Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 comedy to get right - the second half. Keeping things fast, furious, and funny works so well, and the result is so joyous, one cannot help but wonder why similar concepts were not applied to the entire evening.
As directed by Chuck Hudson, the first act drags and plods, limping along as though it didn't have a very funny story to tell. When a young gentleman, Charles Marlow (Christopher Moore) is sent to meet a young woman, Kate (Celeste Ciulla) his father wants him to marry, he mistakes her home for an inn, and her father, Mr. Hardcastle (played by John Camera) as the innkeeper. But, as he has difficulty dealing with women closer to his own social stature, Kate decides that the best way to win him is to play along with his misunderstanding. Meanwhile, Marlow's friend Hastings (Scott Whitehurst) falls in love with Kate's cousin, Constance, played by Eunice Wong, who is already promised to Hardcastle's son, Tony Lumpkin (Jay Stratton.)
Admittedly, the first act is mostly exposition, needed to set up the almost non-stop volley of jokes that follows. But it takes so long to arrive at the shining scene where Kate and Charles meet, but never seem to make eye contact, that the play seems quite a bit like anything other than a comedy. When the intermission arrives with a whimper, the sheer likeability of the performers is the sole real reason for wanting the action to resume.
But when the story starts up again, a remarkable transformation comes over the company, and the production as a whole really takes off. Ciulla and Moore develop chemistry, Kate's parents (played by John Camera and the insanely funny Sally Kemp) become deftly comic, and the play's intertwining love stories of take on a vivid, exciting dimension they should have had all along. Nearly every scene in the second act lands, and lands big. It is as distinct a contrast from the first act as can be thought possible.
The second act is so good that it's worth sitting through the first act to get to it. But even if the second act were a lesser achievement, Wong's performance would be reason enough to buy a ticket. She's wonderful, and the absolute light of the stage whenever she appears. She possesses charm and character in abundance, and appears to be the most gifted comic in the company. The scenes with her at the forefront are the most funny and enjoyable - she never lets you down for a moment.
The rest of the production is fine, but not particularly distinctive. Daryl A. Stone's costumes are colorful and eye-catching, and Stephen Petrilli's lights work well, though the set (Beowulf Boritt is listed in the program as the Scenic Consultant) seems oddly reminiscent of that used for Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing last year, and is not always ideal for the action here.
One of the defining moments of this She Stoops to Conquer happens in the production's opening moments, when the entire cast assembles to sing a new musical prologue, "Simply English," with music and lyrics by Brian Hurley. It's an unnecessary addition, framing the action as too general and not specific enough to bother with. Lyrics like, "Some colonies may have shed us / But we're more concerned with who will bed us / Or wed us" set the tone for the first act all too well.
But that song, and most of the show's earlier transgressions, are forgotten after intermission, when Hudson and the cast sends the audience out of the theatre laughing and smiling. Goldsmith couldn't legitimately ask for much more than that.
Pearl Theatre Company