Also see Sharon's review of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
It looks great. Palm Beach opens with a live version of a short black and white film clip, in which all of the characters are dressed in shades of gray. But as soon as everyone arrives in Palm Beach, an Oz-like transformation takes place, and we are in a technicolor world. It has the desired effect - after just a few minutes of gray-scale, the azure of the ocean background somehow seems bluer, and the colorful costumes of our cast of socialite characters are stunning. Paul Tazewell has done some beautiful work here, sometimes precisely matching clothing colors to Klara Zieglerova's set. Tazewell has also worked in quantity, providing some of the ladies with a new costume for each entrance, and each outfit is more elegant than the last. (The single exception is a particularly unflattering bathing costume provided to Anastasia Barzee.)
Palm Beach also relies on some good old-fashioned song and dance. Early in the show, a servant tries to woo a woman for whom he works. Noah Racey, as the servant, has one of those numbers where he tap dances on the furniture, and eagerly turns random objects into humorous props with which to charm his lady. Credit for this first act highlight should be shared between Racey and choreographer Debbie Roshe.
After such a promising start, Racey's character is hardly seen again in the show, being relegated to a few stray appearances where he sings a few lines of a reprise just to remind us he's still in the play. Superficially, Palm Beach is the story of a New York showgirl who catches her boyfriend two-timing her and runs off to Palm Beach, not knowing that he's run off to Palm Beach as well. There, the two find themselves involved, to varying degrees, with a wealthy family, and high jinks ensue. But, by the time we've met the family's three adult children, learned of their various schemes to inherit their father's wealth, followed their own romantic entanglements, learned something about the servants, had a flashback to a nightclub, and met two maids with the same name, Palm Beach has turned into an ensemble show where no plotline stays center stage long enough to be considered the main storyline. The result is a show that may be actor proof. Each member of the company delivers his or her character, but since each character is simply a skeletal outline of a known type (the overly ambitious daughter, the hypochondriac, the wealthy playboy, the loyal servant, and so forth), it doesn't seem like any of these talented actors is used to his or her fullest potential - and it's quite likely that any understudy or replacement would be just as convincing (and underused).
With very few exceptions, the score, with music by David Gursky and lyrics by Robert Cary, is simply unmemorable. Not 24 hours after seeing it, I'm looking at the song list and can recall only one melody - a standout female comic duet in the second act called, "A Bad Man Is Easy to Find." The rest of the songs serve their purpose - introducing characters, establishing relationships, or moving the plot along - but they all do so in a way that is almost immediately forgettable. The music sounds familiar - a tango, a patter song, a lush paean to a lovely woman - but none of it is unique enough to demand a second listen. The lyrics, too, are serviceable but not exceptional. (I actually wrote down "headline/deadline," as one of the show's better rhymes.)
Ironically, the one place where Palm Beach completely falls down on the job is in its one-liners. The show bills itself as "the screwball musical," but many of its jokes are so completely unfunny that one initially wonders if Palm Beach is mocking the old screwball comedies rather than paying homage to them. One of the first jokes in the show comes when someone says a particular place is "like an elephant, too full of memories." His scene partner pauses, waiting for the audience laugh, as if this particular joke is so intellectually witty it's going to take a few seconds for the audience to figure it out, rather than realizing the line is nowhere near laugh-out-loud funny. The scene's capper ("memories, not mammaries!") suggests the audience is in for two and a half hours of sophomoric attempts at humor. To be sure, Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman have come up with a handful of genuine zingers (including a few unexpected modern references in this tale set in 1939), but the solid laughs are few and far between.
With a little work on the book, Palm Beach could easily become Broadway-ready. But even if it achieves its full potential, Palm Beach will always be a cute but insignificant piece of theatre - a light entertainment that puts a smile on your face for a couple hours, but doesn't leave any lasting memories.
Palm Beach runs at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 17, 2005. For information, see www.lajollaplayhouse.com.
La Jolla Playhouse presents Palm Beach - the Screwball Musical. Book by Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman; Music by David Gursky; Lyrics by Robert Cary. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreographer Debbie Roshe; Music Director Eric Stern. Incidental Music, Vocal and Instrumental Arrangements Eric Stern; Dance Music Arrangements Sam Davis; Scenic Designer Klara Zieglerova; Costume Designer Paul Tazewell; Lighting Designer Howell Binkley; Sound Designer Andrew Keister; Fight Director Steve Rankin; Dialect Coach Eva Wielgat Barnes; Dramaturg Shirley Fishman; Production Stage Manager Frank Hartenstein; Stage Manager Kelly Martindale; Assistant Stage Manager Michelle Reupert; Production Manager Peter J. Davis; West Coast Casting Sharon Bialy, C.S.A., Sherry Thomas; East Coast Casting Tara Rubin Casting.
Photo by Ken Howard