For its third and final offering this year, Reprise! gives us George and Ira Gershwin's/George S. Kaufman's Strike Up the Band. This is political satire at its goofiest. Written in 1927, the plot centers around Horace J. Fletcher, owner of a cheese factory. Concerned about the Swiss response to an American tariff on imported cheese, Fletcher convinces America to declare war on Switzerland.
The plot is, well, cheesy, and the jokes are of the sort you'd expect in an Abrahams/Zucker picture. When Fletcher learns that Iceland has declared war as well, he asks, "Iceland? The skating rink?" Charles Nelson Reilly plays Fletcher with a beat-too-late delivery that really works. Reilly punctuates his lines with eye-rolls and apologetic expressions to the audience, which are simply priceless. Don't take your eyes off of him when you think he's finished speaking, you'll miss a pained glance that is funnier than the line that preceded it.
Fletcher accuses a young newspaperman, who has recently fallen in love with his daughter, of being a Swiss spy, conveniently overlooking his own second-hand-man's telltale language lapses. Throw in a character riding in on a single roller skate, using Groucho's delivery (and Harpo's horn) and a "Come-Look-At-The-War Choral Society," and you have an idea of the lunacy that is Strike Up the Band.
Interwoven with all this silliness is a first-rate Gershwin score, containing such gems as "The Man I Love," "I've Got a Crush on You" and, of course, "Strike Up The Band." This sort of show is the raison d'être for a series like Reprise! Strike Up the Band is a dated show with a ridiculous plot that could never support a full-scale revival, but its score demands to be performed, and Reprise! does it justice.
There are three couples in this show. Reilly's Fletcher finds his match in Ruth Williamson's Mrs. Draper, an apparently well-off widow on Fletcher's war committee. Williamson is brilliantly funny, getting laughs out of what is generally a stock character--the polished, yet man-crazy, older woman Holland Taylor always seems to play on TV. Williamson's physical comedy, on full display in a seasickness sequence, is matched by her singing ability, and the result is a force to be reckoned with. The second couple is Fletcher's daughter, played by Melissa Dye, and the newspaper reporter, played by Michael Maguire. Dye does not shine as much as she did in Reprise's Call Me Madam earlier this season, and Maguire, for his part, comes off more as a slick game show host than a sincere leading man. There is no chemistry between Dye and Maguire, but this is not entirely their fault. The script deprives them of any falling-in-love scene; they begin by hating each other, Dye sings "The Man I Love," which is not directed to Maguire, and, the next time we see them, they are deeply in love.
The third couple, however, is adorable: Troy Britton Johnson plays Timothy, Fletcher's foreman; and Hope Levy plays Anne, Mrs. Draper's daughter. They begin the show in love, but they are unable to marry because Mrs. Draper forbids it. Johnson and Levy are charming and talented, singing and dancing their way through their delightful numbers. They have a very "cutesy" love, not a deep, serious one, but it is the sort of love that lends itself well to extended tap numbers.
But what really makes this show sing is the band and the ensemble. You can't "Strike Up" a tiny little band, and Peter Matz here leads 16 musicians through the lively score. The production also has an eleven-member ensemble, whose members sing, tap, and -- somewhat refreshing for a chorus -- act. With no dialogue at all, they convincingly react to the actions of the principals, and they interact well with each other. But, of course, they're here to sing and dance, and their big numbers do not disappoint.
There still isn't much in the way of a set or props, and costume designer Scott A. Lane worked wonders with what was obviously a limited budget, but none of that matters in the slightest. Reprise! again gives us good performers delivering a good score we don't get to hear everyday, and that's all we need.
Reprise! Broadway's Best, Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director, Ronn Goswick, Managing Director, presents Strike Up the Band. Music by George Gerwshin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by George S. Kaufman, concert adaptation by David Ives. Scenic design Robert L. Smith, costume design Scott A. Lane, lighting design Tom Ruzika, sound design Philip G. Allen, associate music director Gerald Sternbach, technical director Peter Falco, production stage manager Meredith Greenburg, casting director Bruce Newberg, C.S.A., press representative Davidson & Choy Publicity, general manager Tuval Ipp, managing director Ronn Goswick. Produced by Marcia Seligson, musical direction by Peter Matz, choreographed by Gene Castle, directed by Don Amendolia.
At the UCLA Freud Playhouse.
Strike Up the Band closed March 4, 2001.