Regional Reviews: San Francisco
An Outstanding Ensemble Performs
In the summer of 1965 I saw a radiant young lady making her Broadway debut at the Alvin Theatre. Liza Minnelli, whom I had met through her mother Judy Garland several years before, was burning up the stage in Flora, the Red Menace, with Bob Dishy as the romantic interest. Unfortunately, the New York critics were not kind to the musical; they liked the score but felt the book was weak. The New York Times said the book was "a promising idea not yet enlivened by a creative spark." However, everyone loved Liza and she walked away with the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical that year. Flora played only 87 performances, leaving behind two great standards: "A Quiet Thing" and "Sing Happy." The latter became Ms. Minnelli's signature song.
The musical received a greater response when it played Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 1987 with Veanne Cox taking the role of Flora, and Peter Frechette playing the love interest. New songs were added, including the stirring marching song "The Joke." The new book by David Thompson had more youthful energy and optimism than the 1965 production, and the New York critics loved it. The 42nd Street Company is doing the revised version through December 3rd at the Eureka Theatre.
Kander and Ebb's score is sparkling, and some of the songs have the early Kander and Ebb's style about them, such as "The Flame, " and "Where did Everyone Go?", while others sound like an early Jerry Herman score. Even the lively and upbeat "The Joke" sounds more like Mr. Herman.
The cheerful musical opens with narrator Will (Darrin Glesser, with a perfect New York accent) reminding the audience that they are seeing a Federal Theatre project on a "shoestring" budget with only nine actors for twenty-five parts.
Flora, the Red Menace is set in 1935 New York, deep in the Depression. It's the tale of Flora (Dyan McBride), an ebullient out of work fashion illustrator with romantic daydreams, who sublets space in her studio to struggling artists like Kenny (Matthew Brandon Hutchins) and Maggie (Maggie Elizabeth May), a dance team hoping to make it big; Elsa (Carrie Madson), a dress designer; and Mr. Weiss (Kim Larson), who used to own a jewelry shop when people had money but now just repairs watches. Zealous and stammering Communist leader Harry Toukarian (Kalon Thibodeaux) rents a space in exchange for apples and he persuades Flora to join the party. Romance blooms between the two until Comrade Charlotte (Tami Dahbura), who has been lusting after Harry, comes onto the scene. It's all tied up with a happy ending.
Dianna Shuster has assembled a marvelous cast of very talented singers and dancers. All of the performers give winning performances. Dyan McBride (returning to the stage after receiving her Master's in Acting from UC Davis) is the jovial Flora. She has tireless energy and radiance as she sings the sprightly "The Kid Herself" and the reverberating "Sing Happy." She is wise and gifted enough not to imitate Liza Minnelli.
Kalon Thibodeaux (fifth appearance with the company) shows his wonderful talent as the fussy Communist Harry. His terrific patter song, "Sign Here," is perfectly timed. His voice rings out in the inspiring "The Joke." The actor shows off his hilarious comic ability in the second act farce when Charlotte, played uproariously by Tami Dahbura (Electra in Gypsy at the AMT), tries to bed the timid Harry. Tami is also humorous when singing the Communist party meeting song, "The Flame."
Matthew Brandon Hutchens (Thoroughly Modern Millie recently at Diablo Light Opera) as Kenny and Maggie Elizabeth May (Footloose) as Maggie are a delight to watch as they tap a number called "Keepin' It Hot" that could be straight out of a Fred and Ginger "diversion movie" of the Great Depression. Darrin Glesser (Tick, Tick ... Boom) is excellent playing various roles and has a powerful singing voice in several numbers. Kim Larsen (Shopping, the Musical) as Mr. Weiss and Carrie Madsen as Elsa have charming voices in the song "You Are You." Greg Zema (Footloose) is effective in the role of Mr. Stanley.
Dianna Shuster directs a fast paced show that certainly reminds me of those Federal Theatre days. Costumes by Louise Jarmilowicz are authentic period outfits from the Depression days of the middle '30s. Choreography by Jayne Zaban has a '30s flair, and once again David Dobrusky does great back-up on the piano.
Flora, the Red Menace plays through December 3rd at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.
Their next production will be the Joseph Stein/Will Glickman/Albert Hague/Arnold Horwitt 1955 musical Plain and Fancy opening on March 15th and running through April 1.