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Austentatious

Bernice Bobs Her Mullet

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Austentatious
Stacey Sargeant, Stephen Bel Davies, Lisa Asher, Paul Wyatt, Amy Goldberger, George Merrick, and Stephanie D’Abruzzo
Photo by Bobby Octaviano.

Austentatious

It's always telling when a musical's finest moments are completely song-free. That's the case with Austentatious, a woefully underpowered entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival that blends A Chorus Line, Noises Off, Pride and Prejudice, and Waiting for Guffman into something that feels like it deserves to close on opening night. Except, that is, when all the pieces come together (or rather fall apart) on the show-within-the-show's opening night.

The Central Riverdale Amateur Players have been struggling for three months with their Jane Austen adaptation, facing crippling creative differences - the author (Stacey Sargeant), who's sleeping with the director (Stephen Bel Davies), wants to make the story a dance piece - and an all-around lack of talent, but have survived to their first performance. Thirty minutes before curtain, however, stage manager Sam (Stephanie D'Abruzzo) has had enough with all the bickering, blame-throwing, and all the work that's been forced squarely on her and walks out, leaving the six others to fix the problems they've created.

With jumbled props, botched light and sound cues, and a (literally) last-minute cast addition, the ensuing performance is the theatrical embodiment of every actor's nightmare - and every audience's dream. Lightning-brisk, unpredictable (where did that bear claw come from?), and heaped to capacity with hilariously incapacitating mistakes that threaten to sabotage the very art of theatre itself, the way the play unfolds is every bit as bedazzling as it its material is bedraggled.

Unfortunately, nothing else remotely approaches this sequence's transporting magic. From audition and first read-through to one-week-will-it-ever-be-right mania, the book - by a staggering five authors: Matt Board, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin, Luisa Hinchliff, and Joe Slabe - is as loaded with clichés as that last scene is with laughs. With a drugged-out kid (Paul Wyatt), a handsome neophyte (George Merrick) cast in the lead when his overconfident, undertalented girlfriend (Amy Goldberger) drags him along, and an "old pro" trying to retain the company's previous magic (Lisa Asher), covers no recognizable new area.

Nor does the Board-Slabe score, which avoids musicalizing Austen but develops no specific voice of its own. The audition montage, some sweet ballads, a brassy show-biz act closer, and a post-intermission recap number are only evanescently attractive. The cast members are all capable (and in the case of an unusually radiant D'Abruzzo and a winningly warm Asher, quite a bit better), but unable to bring any electricity to material this comatose.

The only number that lands in any real way is "Tech," in which Sam struggles through the final rehearsal implementing gradually numerous sets, costumes, and blocking until the show is in vaguely presentatble shape. This culminates in a warp-speed montage that captures a great deal of the hopeless energy of a show in crisis. That it's not topped by the show's climactic tap-off between Lizzie Bennet and the pirate queen on 42nd Street (don't ask) is one of the many problems with the ambitious but arid Austentatious.


Venue: Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Schedule:
Friday, Sep 28th at 11:00 pm
Saturday, Sep 29th at 4:30 pm
Tickets online NYMF.org


Bernice Bobs Her Mullet

“When one thinks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is almost impossible not to think of mullets.” That opening line from Joe Major’s author’s note in the program for the NYMF production of Bernice Bobs Her Mullet more or less sets the tone for this alternately engaging and troublesome adaptation.

For the first couple scenes, it seems that Major’s take on Fitzgerald’s 1920 short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” which hews fairly closely to the original but updates the action to something vaguely resembling the present, will charm without winking. Bernice (Garrett Long), the mullet-bearing, mobile home-living girl from Eau Claire, finally gets her wish to escape from her go-nowhere mother (Ann Morrison) and escape to the bustling metropolis of Little Rock for two weeks. Though there’s a lightly parodic, Jerry Springer-esque feel to the opening scene, in which Bernice sings the virtues of the city (“I Wanna Be in Little Rock”), it doesn’t seem to stretch beyond the gentle, flirty humor of Fitzgerald’s original.

Major’s treatment of the cityfolk is more blatant, and considerably less entertaining. Bernice’s scheming cousin Marjorie (Hollie Howard) is a squealing, self-loathing git (her makeover anthem for Bernice is called “Hate Yourself”); her friends are assembly-line dorks of the crustiest upper crust (Otis, played by Nick Cearley, is flouncy, closeted, and seen in a maid costume for spurious reasons; supposed romantic lead Warren, played by Brandon Wardell, talks only about his workout regimen); and religious intolerant Draycott (Jeff Hiller) seems like little more than the cheapest way imaginable to get Bernice into the hair-cutting mood - he even has a gospel rave-up number because, well, don’t all Bible thumpers need one?

Aside from Bernice’s tribute to the virtues and drawbacks of country life (“Eau Claire”), the score has the generic feel of Wal-Mart-variety Muzak, and never attempts to get inside anyone’s heads, let alone their hearts; this production’s just-adequate direction (Andy Sandberg) and spray-cheesy choreography (Shea Sullivan) aren’t enough to compensate. What pleasures one may elicit from the show come from the cast’s women: Long somehow avoids cloying and commenting as Bernice, and if she has to work too hard to find her inner redneck, she’s a likeable central figure; Howard and especially Katrina Rose Dideriksen (as one of Marjorie’s friends) belt some thrilling notes that win you over more than their one-dimensional characters ever could.

Original Merrily We Roll Along star Morrison doesn’t sing enough (can she ever?), but demonstrates how to negotiate the roles of both Bernice’s mother and aunt without losing her style or her dignity. She takes everything so seriously, you can’t help but believe every word she says or sings. Bernice Bobs Her Mullet desperately needs Major to approach his writing and composing with that same conviction.


Venue: Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street between 9th and 10th avenues
Schedule:
Thursday, Sep 27th at 4:30 pm
Sunday, Sep 30th at 1:00 pm
Tickets online NYMF.org