An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville
Also see Sharon's review of Vanities
There is truth in advertising. An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville is exactly what it claims to be, although it is French vaudeville rather than American vaudeville. By any name, though, it is a form of entertainment easily recognizable. The plotline is a silly farce; the jokes are punctuated with familiar sound effects; the set changes are themselves an opportunity for physical comedy; the orchestra plays "sneaking music" when characters sneak across the stage; and a song superficially about female empowerment is actually performed as a naughty, seductive number. And yet, the production tries to be true to the time of vaudeville, so the actress performing the seductive dance doesn't go any further than lifting her skirts to show a little stocking.
This works to the extent that the audience is playing along. After all, the plot is dependent on the premise that a woman without her hat is actually (gasp!) naked. Thus, the man whose horse accidentally ate the woman's hat must replace the hat in order to protect the woman's honor. As long as the audience can put itself in the position of accepting the scandalous nature of a hatless woman, it can accept the comedy inherent in the peek at an independent woman's stocking.
And it also works because the actors break character and recognize they're in a vaudevillean additional level of comedy from which the show substantially benefits. The problem with doing a show as an old-fashioned vaudeville is that it's difficult to get laughs with jokes we've all heard beforesmiles, yes, but not actual laughs. But when the show acknowledges that its jokes are old and tired, it's the acknowledgement that gets the real laugh.
It doesn't always work. The plot itselfa series of misadventures as the protagonist tries to hunt down a replacement hat while simultaneously keeping his new bride's family entertainedis the sort of farce that depends on fast-paced delivery. Some of the show's songs, which are more musical theatre than vaudeville, break up the comic rhythm and needlessly interrupt the increasingly frenetic pace of the comedy. Some of the book-based scenes fall badly flat, and the big plot-based laugh the show seems to be working up to is extremely predictable.
On the plus side, there are some scenes that come off funnier than the lines alone might indicate, based largely on exceptional performances. Kasey Mahaffy nearly walks off with the show with his delightful turn as Tardiveau, a young man who is feeling much better now that he knows that the people following him aren't really there. Patrick Kerr has a splendid two-fer, playing both a deaf uncle who responds to everything with a non-sequitur and a pretentious viscount. And it all hangs on the shoulders of Daniel Blinkoff as the young man searching for the hat, who approaches the ridiculousness of his situation with bug-eyed incredulity and some Martin Short-esque physical comedy.
Director Stefan Novinski has a good handle on the timing that is necessary for the book scenes to work, but does seem to lose hold during some of the songs. Donna Marquet has designed a pink striped set which brings to mind the Disneyland ice cream parlor. It's an exceptional choice for this play, which is, when all is said and done, sweet, light, meaningless fun, leaving no lasting impression.
An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville runs at South Coast Repertory through October 5, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.scr.org.
South Coast Repertory – David Emmes, Production Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director – presents An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville. Book and lyrics by John Strand; music by Dennis McCarthy. Scenic Design Donna Marquet; Costume Design Shigeru Yaji; Lighting Design Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Sound Design Drew Dalzell; Musical Staging Christine Kellogg; Dramaturg Megan Monaghan; Production Manager Joshua Marchesi; Stage Manager Jamie A. Tucker; Musical Direction by Dennis Castellano; Directed by Stefan Novinski.