Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Hooray for What! is a Hilarious
Hooray for What! is a hilarious send up of jingoism and war profiteering that was very popular with Broadway audiences in 1937 who had certain isolationist feelings about the coming battles of World War II in Europe. Previous anti-war themes had failed at the box office, such as Gershwin's Strike up the Band and Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson's Johnny Johnson. However, Yip had enough clout to conceive this musical. Since the Shuberts needed a boffo box office they hired Broadway's most popular funny man Ed Wynn to head the cast. The famed comedian in turn demanded "specialty material" just for his own style of comedy. This had little or nothing to do with the book. They hired director Vincente Minnelli and actors Vivian Vance, as the spy Stephanie Stephanovich, and Jack Whiting, as Breezy Cunningham. Wynn would play the mousey scientist Chuckles.
The musical opened to rave reviews, and it became one of the big musical hits of the year. It was regarded as something of a musical comedy breakthrough. Unfortunately, in 1938, the musical started to lose its charm and it seriously needed a re-write since Europe was almost aflame with military action. Arlen and Harburg were in Hollywood writing The Wizard of Oz and they could not help. The musical died a slow death with no touring prospects or a film contract. It lay dormant in trunks and Shubert's archive until Greg MacKellan came along to rescue the important piece.
The musical centers on a small town in Indiana where mild-mannered and naive scientist Chuckles (Kim Larsen) has accidentally invented a weapon capable of conquering the world. He is immediately plagued by spies and American weapon manufacturers who want to get their hands on his formula. The appropriately named Breezy Cunningham (David Curley) comes back to his home town, now an important weapons maker. He bribes the scientist with the promise of continued support for peaceful research. Chuckles refuses to give the formula of the death gas to the smarmy man, so Breezy hires famous spy Stephanie Stephanovich (Meg MacKay) to steal it.
The plot moves to Geneva, Switzerland, to the League on Nations Peace Conference where Chuckles, Breezy, Stephanie and many other spies try to get the formula. The whole League of Nations gets involved, but it has to have a happy ending with all nations loving each other. Oh what a pipe dream that is.
Hooray for What! has plenty of very funny antics and corny puns that are real groaners. The plot is as relevant today as it was when the musical first opened. It shows us that nothing has changed and there is still lunacy prevailing in today's world.
The score is typical late '30s music with some very clever lyrics by Harburg that smack on the type of lyrics that Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart wrote during that time, involving celebrities of the day (and Harburg was on par with those great lyricists). A good example is in the big production number "God's Country," which became a standard hit during the war. You just can't top "We've got no Mussolini, got no Mosely/But we've got Popeye and Gypsy Rose Lee." "I've Gone Romantic on You" is a prime example of a typical 1930s love song where the lyricist rhymes "romantic" with "Atlantic" and "gigantic."
Greg MacKellan has assembled a very talented cast of singers to bring out the best in the Arlen and Harburg score. David Curley is a stand out in the musical. He plays the character very "breezy" and he adds charm to an oily role. His rendition of "I've Gone Romantic on You" is '30s crooning at its best. The Fashion Girl scene in the Munitions Salon in the second act has David showing off his comic talents. There is a little Max Bialystock in his acting.
Meg MacKay is great as the spy from everywhere. Her "international" accent is priceless, and her vocal chops have never been better. Her belting of the torch song "Night of the Embassy Ball" in her brassy voice is dynamic. She also does a bang-up rendition of "Down with Love" that could become a standard cabaret song. Kristen Loving Vail has a wonderful duet with Curley in "Napoleon's a Pastry," which has clever lyrics about historical personalities becoming something else.
Outstanding is Charlie Levy (who just came from the DVLO production of La Cage aux Folles), belting out "Life's a Dance." The powerful dynamic voice reverberates through the whole theatre. Elsa Carmona is priceless as a spy intern and Delilah De La Rue. You can't help thinking of Andrea Martin when Carmona slinks about the stage. Michael Patrick Gaffney with another strange "spy" accent is excellent as the leader of "the spy union." Brian Yates Sharber has a powerhouse voice, leading the group in "God's Country." The rest of the cast play various characters and all are excellent in the various roles. Alexandra Kaprielian's choreography is good for the small stage, and Brandon Adams gives the piano keys a good workout.
Hooray for What! plays at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco through November 28. For tickets call Yerba Buena Box Office 415-978-2787 or order on line at 42ndStMoon.org. Opening next is Lea Delaria in Once Upon a Mattress on December 8th.