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Chicago by John Olson

Tupperware: An American Musical Fable
New Colony at La Costa Theater

Also see John's review of Blackbird

Tupperware
Meg Johns, Nikki Klix, Tara Sissom, Mary Hollis Inboden, Thea Lux
There was an improv show in Chicago in the late 1990s called Musical! The Musical in which audiences would give the performers a subject and the performers would come back with a full-fledged musical. Learning the title of Tupperware, one can wonder if bookwriters James Asmus, Will Cavedo, director-lyricist and co-bookwriter Andrew Hobgood and composer Julie Nichols came up with their subject in the same way. (After all, this team has already done a musical about necrophilia.) In fact, this fictionalized but based-in-fact story of the origins of Tupperware parties is at its core a story of the search for self-fulfillment—a topic that is among the most classical of musical comedy themes. In the early 1950s, financially self-sufficient women were still out of the norm and hosting Tupperware parties gave women the ability to earn substantial money and independence. While this world premiere could use a lot of tweaking, the premise works and the score is as good as many of the new musicals that have opened on Broadway in recent years. There are enough satisfying musical theater moments in it to prove that with more work this could become a very popular piece.

After a greeting to the audience by Meg Johns (in character as real-life inventor of the Tupperware party, Brownie Wise), the action begins in Kissimmee Florida circa 1950. We meet the recently widowed Dolores Bird Clarke (Mary Hollis Inboden), whose husband died without leaving the Army pension she thought would provide for her support. Shortly after her husband's funeral, she is visited by Brownie Wise, who over several more visits convinces her to invite neighbors over to see a new line of plastic housewares that will not only save money but grant them two extra hours of leisure time each week. Before the first party is announced, Brownie's frequent visits to Dolores' home draw the attention of uber-housewife Lilah Johnsonton (played in drag by Danny Taylor), leader of their cul-de-sac's garden club (picture a cross between "Desperate Housewives"' Bree Van de Kamp and Cruella de Vil). In a lively number called "Suspicion," Lilah persuades the three members of the club to pay a visit to Dolores and investigate.

It takes a while (too long, actually) for Brownie to convince Dolores she can sell Tupperware. Through a song in the tradition of My Fair Lady's "The Rain in Spain" (or more recently, Bat Boy's "I'll Show You a Thing or Two"), Brownie and a Tupperware executive help Dolores settle on a genuine, down-home method of selling the products through personal testimonials ("It's Easy to Clean"). When Lilah learns the nefarious activity at Dolores' house is not the lesbian affair she suspected, she finds its true purpose—which would change the rules and responsibilities of housewifedom—to be even more subversive. Her neighbors/followers, though, are desirous of the additional freedom they could get from "Just Two Hours," as expressed in the lively and plaintive fugue sung by the three carrying a sink, an ironing board and a kitchen counter on straps around their shoulders. When the three (Nikki Klix, Tara Sissom, Thea Lux) attend the party and are won over by Tupperware's functionality in a rousing first act R&B-infused finale, the battle lines are drawn between Lilah and Tupperware. Guess who wins? Ever hear of a Lilah Johnsonton party?

Not surprisingly for a new piece, Tupperware could use some work, primarily in evening out the tone and settling on a point of view. As of now, the musical oscillates between a sympathetic approach toward Dolores and Brownie and a campy, satirical attitude toward Lilah and the neighbors. The opening number is a mournful lament by Dolores on the loss of her husband, who later appears in her imagination (played by Kevin Stangler) to sing the lovely ballad "Apology." These are heartfelt scenes, played warmly by Inboden and Stangler, but when we shift to the bits with Lilah and the trio of neighbors we seem to be watching a different show, albeit an enjoyable one, especially in their comedy number, "Suspicion." It's not entirely clear if the show is meant to be a traditional musical or an affectionate pastiche of musicals. They do play a couple of tricks that suggest the latter, like unexpectedly interrupting the button of a big power ballad and providing dialogue that seems to building to a high-energy number then deliberately going somewhere else entirely.

I'd also like to see the writers more clearly develop Brownie. Right now, this real-life historical figure is treated neither satirically nor quite realistically. They have lots to work with here. Brownie Wise was a pioneer—a driven female business person in a time when there were many of them—and a visionary to boot. Meg Johns gives Brownie considerable poise and confidence, but I'd like to see the authors give us more of a look under her armor—show us why she is driven to do what she's doing. The relationship between Brownie and Dolores develops too slowly, making for an overlong first act, and wastes some opportunities to reel us in to the characters.

While Tupperware borrows from classic musicals, with a big nod to Hairspray in its challenge of traditional feminine roles, the cast and creative team make some effective choices to keep things fresh. Danny Taylor manages to keep things varied and interesting by avoiding the obvious choices a drag performer might make for the Queen Bee Lilah. His speeches frequently use a rhythmic cadence that makes Lilah almost seem possessed and provides a great lead-in to her numbers, particularly in a mashup of Gilbert & Sullivan with a country beat called "Age of America."

The trio of neighbors might have been a Greek chorus of biddies, but here they're distinct and amusing characters. Tara Sissom is caustic as Lilah's lieutenant Kitty while Nikki Klix is sweet as Gladys, described by Kitty as having "the face of a 16-year-old and the mind of a ladybug." The well-meaning, open-minded Gertie is played by Thea Lux with perfect comic timing and understatement. Kevin Stangler handles all the male roles with skill and delivers his songs in a soaring tenor and terrific stage presence. Hobgood, the other writers and costume designer Nathan R. Rohrer need to give him some help on ways to tell the audience exactly which character he is at given moment—accessorize the wardrobe, change the voice, etc.

Rohrer's costumes establish the period nicely (though I'm at a loss to judge the color schemes, as most film and photos of the early fifties are black and white) and Kevin McClintock's set is a realistic enough living room in Dolores' house. The dance numbers are choreographed with much energy by Taylor.

It all comes together in a feel-good finale that wraps up this Tupperware party most satisfyingly. I suspect that audiences will believe in these characters and the authenticity of their journeys. The writers may just have to show us that they trust their own instincts toward their material. If they can do that, this little show could have a very bright future. With its examination of the merits of word-of-mouth marketing, it could also become the first musical to be included in business school curricula.

Tupperware: An American Musical Fable will be performed Thursdays through Sundays through August 9 at 7:30 p.m. at La Costa Theater, 3931 N. Elston, Chicago. For tickets, visit the New Colony website at www.thenewcolony.org.


Photo: Anne Petersen

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-- John Olson



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