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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

The Flea and the Professor and Phoenix

Also see Tim's reviews of Saturn Returns and Little Women

The Flea and the Professor
Alex Keiper, Scott Greer and Rob McClure
Photo: Mark Garvin
The Flea and the Professor, the Arden Theatre's new world premiere musical for children, is a splendid entertainment, boasting eye-popping design, a witty script, and marvelous performances. You'll have such a good time watching it, in fact, that you might overlook this musical's weakest element: its music.

Based on a lesser-known tale by master storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, The Flea and the Professor is the story of a self-styled "Professor" who runs a low-rent circus. "We are not the greatest show on earth," sings the Professor as he lists all his circus' limitations. Soon, the Professor finds a partner who makes his show a hit—a performing flea who gives his all and asks little in return but an arm to bite on ("Sorry, it's in my nature"). Eventually the two partners board a ship which has a hapless captain ("I lost the map. And the compass. And the GPS."). The ship lands on exotic, tropical Cannibal Island, where the Professor fights for his life, while the Flea pursues a most unlikely—but delightful—romance.

The Flea and the Professor is a lot of fun, thanks largely to its style and showmanship. Director Anne Kauffman's staging is full of shrewd stagecraft which keeps the actors moving constantly, notably in scenes set on a train and on a hot air balloon. There's a clever set design (with a circus motif) courtesy of Louisa Thompson, and Olivera Gajic's costumes for the cannibals and the Flea are hilarious. Kauffman also gets terrific efforts from her three stars. Rob McClure, fresh off his winning lead performances in Amadeus at the Walnut and Where's Charley? at City Center Encores!, once again shows off his singular talent for clowning. His tuxedo-clad Professor always strives to appear dignified and respectable, even when he winds up in a cannibal's stewpot. McClure makes the Professor amiable and endearing. Scott Greer is lovably outlandish as Herman the Flea; Herman chews on a few arms, while Greer chews on the scenery. And Alex Keiper is delicious as the Cannibal Princess, perfectly capturing the attitude of a petulant twelve-year-old who pouts and sulks until she gets her way.

Andersen's story was not one of his more memorable, but this adaptation disguises the story's weaknesses very well. Jordan Harrison's book is consistently droll. Not every children's show can include sly references to John Donne and Walt Whitman and make them work, but this one does, satisfying the adults in the audience without talking down to the children. Harrison co-wrote the lyrics with Richard Gray, and most of them are at the same sharp level. But Gray's music rarely rises above the merely serviceable. There are some nice shuffles ("The Little Big Top"), some bouncy fifties-style rock ("Gobble Gobble"), and a cute parody of dramatic love ballads ("Just a Guy"). But little of the music will stick with you.

That's OK, though; The Flea and the Professor moves so fast that its failings will barely register. You won't have much to complain about, because you'll be too busy being entertained.

The Flea and the Professor runs through June 12, 2011, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $16 to $32, with discounts available for students, seniors, military, educators and children, and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org, or in person at the box office.

Scott Organ's Phoenix, now being given an excellent production by Flashpoint Theatre Company, isn't your standard romantic comedy. Sue and Bruce met by chance and had a one-night stand, but then Sue had to leave town on business. Four weeks later, they meet again so that Sue can tell Bruce she really likes him, but doesn't want to see him again. Oh, and that she's pregnant with his child. Naturally, this revelation has implications for both of them, and it means that, despite Sue's determination to end contact with Bruce, their relationship isn't quite over yet. They continue to meet, up until a climactic appointment she has in the city of Phoenix. Will they come to an understanding, or will their dead relationship, like a phoenix, rise from the ashes?

The subject matter of Phoenix might seem an awkward one, but it's handled with admirable directness; this is not a play about the abortion debate. What matters here is how big an impact Sue and Bruce make in each others' lives, and whether they can admit that to each other. The plot has some predictable turns mixed in with some surprising ones, plus some keen observations on human nature. It helps that Organ's nimble script is stocked with good jokes, keeping the tone light while not ignoring the story's serious underpinning. And Flashpoint's production benefits from appealing performances by Corinna Burns and Keith J. Conallen, who have good chemistry despite playing dissimilar characters. Burns' Sue is a guarded and cynical nurse (she thinks raising children is pointless because "We're all going to die"), while Conallen's Bruce is a genial sort who uses humor as a defense mechanism ("Is this where your interest in nursing began?"). Sue's bleak attitude—and the playwright's failure to fully explain what formed it—makes her a less sympathetic character, but director Candace Cihocki finds the right balance between the actors, emphasizing Burns' vulnerability and Conallen's charm. Dick Durossette's set design is minimal and elegant, with scenery changes made quickly by the two actors.

Watching Burns and Conallen flirt and fight, while wrestling with some big issues, helps makes Phoenix a low-key pleasure.

Phoenix runs through May 28, 2011, and is presented by Flashpoint Theatre Company at Second Stage at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom Street. Ticket prices range from $10 to $20 and may be purchased by calling 215-665-9720, online at www.flashpointtheatre.org or in person at the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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