Something that musical theatre in general, and, one might suggest, the Ahmanson season in particular, needs is new blood. And this is what we get with 3hree. It is the only musical in the Ahmanson's 2000-2001 season that has not been seen on Broadway. And with a little tinkering, it could be.
3hree is comprised of three mini-musicals, each by (relatively) unknown writers. But, unlike Contact, the Ahmanson's next tenant and another three-for-one show, each mini-musical in 3hree also features the work of a different director and choreographer. With the absence of a single director providing an artistic vision for the show, 3hree lacks a certain coherence. Indeed, 3hree emphasizes the differences between the shows, separating them not with a dropped curtain and intermission, but rather with a "three-minute pause," in which all curtains are raised, and we see the actors backstage preparing for the next show. This is not a unified whole, in which a single picture emerges from the convergence of the three parts. It is, instead, three separate shows, and the pauses between them are a little taste of sorbet to clean the palette between courses. To be sure, there are some things in common between the shows, the cast being first among them. Another quirk of commonality is that each show is set in a specific section of America with a very distinct speech pattern. But this, too, serves as a distinguishing, rather than unifying, factor. The different accents separate the performers' roles -- we are clearly not to carry over memories of the performances from one show to the next.
The first of the three playlets is The Mice, a bizarre little tale of an exterminator in Chippewa Falls, Minnesota. It is the weakest of the 3hree shows, due to the fact that, even with its limited duration, it seems unsure of its identity. The opening song, a cheery little number in which the townspeople call the exterminator because their homes are overrun with mice, does not succeed in setting the tone for the rest of the piece. We are introduced to Allan, the exterminator, and soon learn the reason for the increase in the Chippewa Falls rodent population. Turns out that Allan is unhappily married, and his (also unhappily-married) girlfriend, Virga, secretly raises mice and releases them into the homes of unsuspecting neighbors. The neighbors call Allan, Allan determines he must spray their homes with very dangerous chemicals, the neighbors leave their houses for the requisite amount of time, and, presto, instant tryst for Allan and Virga. This aspect of the plot is cute and comical, but the show takes a decidedly darker turn when Allan responds to his wife's refusal to give him a divorce by taking a closer look at the toxicity of his chemicals. (The Minnesota accents are not the only thing about The Mice that is reminiscent of Fargo.)
The score of The Mice is largely unmemorable, with the exception of its perky opening number. Although the show's plot takes some surreal twists, the music remains light and straightforward. Perhaps this incongruity is intentional, meant to emphasize the normalcy of the characters in their abnormal situation, but the overriding impression is simply that the show isn't gelling.
A three-minute pause later, and we enter the world of Lavender Girl, which is Montgomery, Alabama, in 1927. We are introduced to Colin, a young cad on his way to yet another society party, where he plans to use his good looks and smooth talk to get himself a lovely young lady for the night. His plans are brought to an abrupt halt when, while driving through the woods, he nearly runs over a young woman in a lavender dress. He is immediately taken by this strange girl, Emily, and brings her to the party as his date. This Cinderella story takes its own twist when Emily must make her abrupt midnight exit, and Colin discovers, to his great surprise, that he wants to see her again.
The biggest flaw with Lavender Girl is that, from this point, you can pretty much see where the show is going, although it takes its own sweet time getting there. And if you happen to be one of the few people who hasn't heard a variant of this story at sleep-away camp, you'll still discover Emily's secret before Colin does, thanks to a set-change which is not as invisible as it should be.
The beauty of Lavender Girl is that, for the most part, knowing the ending doesn't really matter. It is an old story, but it is lovingly told. The score, which encompasses touching ballads as well as an upbeat dance number, serves the story well. Colin's transformation from a heartless ladies' man is clearly presented, and his final declaration of love is poignant. It is a graceful telling of the tale, which makes good use of its short time on the stage.
Neither The Mice nor Lavender Girl ends entirely happily, and after these two mini-musicals, the audience needs something uplifting. They get it, in more than one sense of the word, with The Flight of the Lawnchair Man. The lawnchair of the title belongs to Jerry, a loveable nebbish from Passaic, who has never really amounted to anything. All that changes when he ties hundreds of helium balloons to his lawnchair, in an attempt to take flight over New Jersey.
The tone of the piece is set even before the first number begins, during the pre-show pause, when we see some of the actors in their costumes. The costumes are bright and colorful, helping to plant this show in a fantasy suburbia even before the curtain rises on Jerry's perfect white picket fence. Harold Prince directed this piece, and the sure hand of an experienced and visionary director is unmistakable. There is a confidence to Flight of the Lawnchair Man that allows it walk to the edge of total cornball hilarity without ever losing its heart.
Jerry does take flight in his lawnchair, and the small triumph of a single man achieving flight takes on a different dimension when he flies higher than anticipated, an airline pilot spots him, and the FAA orders him back to the ground. Jerry must decide whether to bow to authority and cut short his flight, or continue the journey he'd always dreamt of. Jerry gets a little light-headed, and in his delirium, he imagines he sees the ghosts of famous aviators of the past, who each pop on and sing a song to help him make his decision.
The characters are well-drawn, the music is strong, the lyrics alternate between hilarious and moving, and the costumes are downright adorable. If you see 3hree for Flight of the Lawnchair Man alone, it's worth it.
Nine performers deliver the three shows, making 3hree a true ensemble piece, as a performer who is one of "the townspeople" in The Mice has a leading role in one of the other two musicals. This may be the cause of one of the flaws in 3hree: without a single, well-rehearsed "chorus," the delivery of the choral numbers is not as crisp as it should be, and the lyrics sung in unison are rarely comprehensible. The performers fare better with their solo moments. Particularly notable are Valerie Wright, who dances a lovely dream ballet in The Mice; Will Gartshore, who puts his heart into Colin in Lavender Girl; and John Scherer, whose psychologically unstable airline pilot threatens to steal Flight of the Lawnchair Man from Eddie Korbich's loveable Jerry. Actually, everyone in Flight of the Lawnchair Man makes the most of their moment in the sun, which is exactly how it should be.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer presents The Prince Music Theater production of 3hree. The Mice: book by Julia Jordan; music by Laurence Crawford O'Keefe; lyrics by Nell Benjamin; choreography by Rob Ashford; directed by Brad Rouse. Lavender Girl: book by James D. Waedekin; music & lyrics by John Bucchino; choreography by Daniel Stewart; directed by Scott Schwartz. The Flight of the Lawnchair Man: book by Peter Ullian; music & lyrics by Robert Lindsey Nassif; based on a concept by Robert Lindsey Nassif; choreography by Michael Arnold; directed by Harold Prince. Scenic design Walt Spangler; costume design Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting design Howell Binkley; sound design Duncan Robert Edwards; music director & supervisor Lawrence Yurman; orchestrations Michael Gibson; dance supervisor Jeanne Simpson; casting by Mark Simon, C.S.A.; production supervisor Nick Schwartz-Hall; production stage manager Lisa Dawn Cave. Production by special arrangement with SSDC. The Flight of the Lawnchair Man was commissioned by The Prince Music Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which produced the World Premiere of 3hree in October 2000. Originally developed in The Harold Prince Musical Theatre Program at The Directors Company in New York City. The Mice inspired by Virga Vay & Allan Cedar by Sinclair Lewis.
The Flight of
the Lawnchair Man:
3hree runs at the Ahmanson through June 10, 2001.