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Chicago by John Olson

My Favorite Year
Bailiwick Repertory Theatre

My Favorite Year
Megan Long, Michael Mahler, Rus Rainear, Brian Simmons, Kate Garassino, Michael Hampton, John Leen
They have too little in common thematically to be called companion pieces, but it's a happy coincidence that Bailiwick's My Favorite Year and Circle Theatre's Mack and Mabel have been running more or less concurrently. What the two pieces share is that they're both shows by major writers that had disappointing runs on Broadway. Both celebrate bygone eras of popular entertainment: Mack and Mabel the chaotic world of silent film comedies and My Favorite Year the chaotic world of live TV comedy in the early 1950s. What the two productions share are ambitious commitments to the material by talented non-Equity companies giving these two production-value-heavy shows everything they can get their hands on to honor the demands of the pieces. In both cases, the productions are strong enough to paradoxically give the audience a good time while showing why the pieces struggled on Broadway.

Bailiwick's production gets off to a quick start as the opening number, "Twenty Million People," establishes the excitement experienced by the pioneers of live TV - performers playing before an audience unimaginable in its size just a decade before the year in which this story is set. The 23-person company garbed in a variety of costumes (by Elizabeth Powell Shaffer) befitting the eclectic content of a '50s-era TV variety show - move through choreographer Annie Hackett's organized chaotic dances to relive a typical five-minute countdown to air time. Flaherty and Ahrens seem to have a special gift for opening numbers (like "Ragtime" and "We Dance" from Once on this Island), and the company sings this one flawlessly, well-supported by the five-piece band directed by Robert Ollie and the ensemble, who play in character more convincingly than most. We're also introduced to most of the key characters, amazingly well-cast to type. As the star of "King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade," Brian Simmons' droopy demeanor and perpetually exasperated look easily recalls the era's TV stars like Milton Berle or Sid Caesar. He's matched by tough-gal gag writer Alice Miller (in the manner of Rose Marie's Sally Rogers on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show"), nicely played by Kate Garassino.

The number is narrated by the young writer Benjy Stone, who will serve as a chaperone of sorts for the show's replacement guest star for the week matinee idol Alan Swann, clearly inspired by Douglas Fairbanks. As Benjy, Director David Zak is most lucky to have the services of Michael Mahler, who has the stage presence plus vocal and acting skills to carry a show in which he must be on stage most of the show and the focus of attention the bulk of that time. He's a supremely confident singing actor and a talent to watch. He came to this show immediately following an impressive performance as the Balladeer in Sondheim's Assassins for Porchlight Theatre Chicago, and has written songs performed in productions as diverse as Bailiwick's Barenaked Lads in the Great Outdoors and the children's musical How Can You Run with a Shell on Your Back?, soon to open at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Though 2006 certainly ought to be his favorite year so far, as he builds on his considerable skills and finds ways to surprise the audience a bit more often, he should have a lot of even better years ahead.

Kevin Mayes is this production's Alan Swann and as he's maybe just an inch or two taller than Michael Mahler, his stature might not immediately suggest a movie swashbuckler, but he has the acting chops and physical ability to carry it off. His drunken pratfalls and gymnastic ability as he swings onto the TV set in a climactic scene are most believable. A couple of things work against him, though. Joseph Dougherty's book moves much of the emphasis away from Alan and onto Benjy, leaving out a lot of the detail and motivation for Swann's fears and weakness. Secondly, it would be pretty tough for any regional production to enjoy the subtext brought to the role by the likes of a former matinee idol playing a fictional one and it's certainly tougher to compete with the memory of Peter O'Toole than the memory of Mark Linn-Baker.

There's nice support in the remaining roles as well. Susan Veronika Adler manages the Jewish mom role without invoking the spirit of Lainie Kazan. Megan Long makes a cute love interest for Benjy with her almost but not quite squeaky soprano.

Director David Zak keeps the proceedings at a suitably manic pace. Though at times he and his cast might want to wait an extra beat before delivering a punch line, or wring just a little more moisture out of the dialogue's dryer wit, he has built a production that carries us fully into the glamour and nostalgia of 1950s New York. A series of movable cutout flats suggesting the Manhattan skyline designed by Rebecca Hamlin, and some twinkling lights in the background are just about all we need.

Flaherty and Ahrens have added two new songs to the production. In the first, "Always Put on a Good Show," Swann explains to Benjy the importance of keeping up appearances and giving fans what they want. Accompanying their night on the town after Swann's arrival, it makes a nice production number. The second, "Swann's Song," is a patter number in which Swann expresses his trepidation over performing on live TV. Its mock Gilbert & Sullivan tone seems a bit out of sync with the rest of the score.

Zak's production is a good time, and makes the case for others to give this show another chance. Though it's not one of Flaherty and Ahrens' best scores, and though the plot and characters may have been a bit too condensed to make room for the music, the TV studio milieu works well for the production numbers and comedy set pieces, and the musical still manages to capture the charm of the original movie. It's a showcase piece for comic actors and, with the right celebrities in the leads, it could be a lot of fun. Even in the age of TiVo, maybe it's time to return to the golden age of TV and mount a live telecast of this musical.

My Favorite Year is performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. at the Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Closes April 14th. For ticket information, visit www.bailiwick.org or call 777/883-1090.


Photo: David Zak

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-- John Olson



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