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Chicago by John Olson

Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend
National Tour at the Chicago Theatre

The Boy Friend
Sean Palmer and Jessica Grové
Less than 30 years separated the premieres of musicals like No, No, Nanette (1925) and Good News (1927) from the opening of Sandy Wilson’s pastiche of that genre. It’s now been over 50 years since The Boy Friend first appeared in London and on Broadway, and it may now be better known than the originals that inspired it. Even if today’s audiences have little frame of reference for appreciating Mr. Wilson’s gentle parody of flapper-era tuners, they’ll certainly recognize the enduring appeal of so many of the dramatic conventions it references. If his “Room in Bloomsbury” was inspired by Nanette’s “Tea for Two,” it also preceded My Fair Lady’s “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” as a song of longing for modest pleasures. The conceit of characters posing as persons of a social class lower or higher than their own has been used by Mark Twain as well as some of the latest teen movies. Older adults rekindling a lost romance? Americans and Brits finding love and marriage on Mediterranean shores? Those two concepts have done all right for Mamma Mia!

In her directorial debut, Julie Andrews wisely minimizes the direct parody of 1920s performance styles (using it only when her girls strike poses and speak in unison), and plays up the charm. She’s a remarkably good director of actors, who all find quite believable and almost touching nuances to their characters. As the heroine Polly Browne, Jessica Grové combines sweetness and genuine loneliness with a British stiff upper lip in the face of her romantic disappointments. Her love interest, Tony, is played by Sean Palmer as the sort of thoroughly likable young gentleman – somewhere between Leslie Howard and the young Cary Grant - that has populated so many British films. Second leads Bobby and Maisie (Rick Faugno and Andrea Chamberlain) are a confident but never brash American boy and a playful but not loose British girl. Polly’s millionaire father Percival (Paul Carlin), a role that would have been perfect for John Cleese, is guarded and a bit lonely himself before Madame Dubonnet (Nancy Hess), headmistress of the boarding school Polly attends, manages to warm his spirits and loosen him up. Character roles played by Drew Eshleman, Darcy Pulliam and Bethe Austin are milked, but never for more than they’re worth. Like her iconic character Maria von Trapp, Ms. Andrews finds the humanity in all.

More than anything, though, the point of The Boy Friend is to offer a completely light and charming entertainment of song, dance and the visual treats of an idealized and glamorous place and time – the French Riviera in the mid-1920’s - and this production mostly succeeds in delivering that. The piece is a little slow-going in the first two of three acts (with the intermission between acts two and three), which is heavy on duets for each of the three romantic couples, but it picks up considerably in the third, when production numbers and production values escalate. The dance numbers in the first two acts are ably performed, but unsurprising. John DeLuca’s choreography of the big production numbers in act three, “Safety in Numbers” and “The Riviera,” are much more inventive and set in the context of an imaginatively costumed (by Tony Walton and Rachel Navarro) and lit (by Richard Pilbrow and Dawn Chang) masquerade ball. Walton’s set designs, framing the action within an illustration of a false proscenium and a caricatured 1920s audience watching from boxes, are a major asset of the production, using his trademark cartoon style to set help the tone.

The cast members are all impressive singers and dancers. Led by Jessica Grové, whose performance in the role that brought Julie Andrews to Broadway suggests what Ms. Andrews' original performance might have looked like, has a sweet soprano that reminds us of her director’s voice. Sean Palmer is in equally strong voice as Tony, while Rick Faugno has an exceptionally pleasing sound and presence that makes him an impressive leader of the big dance numbers.

Though Ms. Andrews understands the delicate nature of this piece, it may suffer from being placed in a big house like the Chicago. Amplification problems on opening night didn’t help the feeling that the show was a bit out of place here and may have unintentionally added some nostalgia for a time when the shows it parodies performed in more intimate and non-amplified settings.

The Boy Friend runs through Saturday, November 19, 2005 at the Chicago Theater, 175 N. State St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or at the box office. The production is the first of a series of touring musicals to be mounted by Goodspeed Musicals, in conjunction with eight other theaters around the country.


Photo: Diane Sobolewski

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-- John Olson



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