Adrift in Macao at Philadelphia Theatre Company
Adrift in Macao is a musical that has a lot going for it - a clever idea, a great bunch of songs, and a stellar cast. A parody of 1940s film noir, its main selling point is the book and lyrics by celebrated playwright Christopher Durang, and while it's a very funny script at times, the level of invention and wit is inconsistent and at times desperate. Still, the show rarely fails to be entertaining. It's a light entertainment that never takes itself too seriously, and, even though that makes the show somewhat frustrating, it also makes it a lot of fun.
Adrift takes place in 1952 and opens with glamorous band singer Lureena coming to the titular Chinese city in search of a job. As the show opens, she stands on a street corner and tries to hail a driver: "Rickshaw! Rickshaw!" she calls. A stranger appears from the darkness: "Hello," he says, "I'm Rick Shaw." (That should tell you what kind of a comedy this is.) Lureena soon tangles with the rough-hewn Mitch, who is in search of the man who framed him for a crime - the mysterious Mr. McGuffin. (If you're an Alfred Hitchcock fan, you know the meaning of "McGuffin," and if you're not, don't worry - Durang's script will conveniently explain it to you.) Rick Shaw hires Lureena to sing at his nightclub. He may also hold the secret to McGuffin's whereabouts. Or maybe the key is Rick's Chinese henchman, Tempura ("I am called Tempura because I have been battered by life").
All of this is the framework upon which Durang piles joke after joke after joke - everything from a discussion of existentialism to a quote from a Frank Wildhorn musical. There's also a lot of dialogue that winks at the audience and breaks down the fourth wall ("See you around." "Well, it's a small cast."). The show gets more and more ridiculous as it goes along, but about halfway through, it runs out of steam with a song called "Mitch's Story" that takes far too long to tell how Mitch got framed. True to form, the show even criticizes itself for including such a long, boring song; as Tempura says, "I would have preferred a medium [length] version, with perhaps some dancing."
Just when the show seems to have collapsed under its own cuteness and lack of substance, however, Durang and his gifted composer Peter Melnick bring the show back to life with two terrific songs. First comes a killer torch song, "So Long," delivered with star-making style by Rachel deBenedet as Lureena. Then comes a hilarious number in which Rick complains "They've given everyone a song except me!" He sings that he was so frustrated to be without a song that he paid for one - and hands the musicians the sheet music. "I am talented - why didn't they write me a song? ... I have special skills ... I can drive a stick shift!" The sensational Michael Rupert brings the house down with this number, which is somewhat reminiscent of Sara Ramirez' solo in Spamalot - except that the song in Adrift has funnier lyrics and a better melody.
Fine direction by Sheryl Kaller keeps the tone consistent even when the script is not, and Christopher Gattelli's jokey choreography on the uptempo "Mister McGuffin" (which ends with a pause for the dancers to hyperventilate) is one of the highlights of the show. Peter Melnick's music ranges from steamy, moody numbers to an Irish ballad parody; each song is an engaging one that captures its style perfectly. And you will not be able to get the insistently catchy closing song, "Ticky Ticky Tocky," out of your head for days, no matter how hard you try.
As Mitch, David McDonald has just the right touch of tough-guy swagger, while Rachel deBenedet makes a great partner for him. (She definitely has the right look for the part of an alluring man-killer; when she first walked onstage, the man sitting behind me gasped, "Oh, wow!") Michele Ragusa plays the singer deBenedet is hired to replace, bringing a wacky charm to her Carmen Miranda spoof, "Mambo Malaysian." Unfortunately, she seems so chipper and lovable that a running gag about her character being a drug addict just doesn't ring true. The talented Jennie Eisenhower is criminally underused in the chorus; however, her post-Jennifer Aniston shag haircut seems out of place in a show set in 1952. (Then again, considering that a crucial plot point involves the use of a miniature tape recorder several decades before it was invented, that haircut is not the most anachronistic thing in Adrift.)
The standout in this exceptionally talented cast is Orville Mendoza as Tempura. Mendoza's character is outlandish on paper, and Mendoza makes him even more so, stealing every scene he's in and making himself the center of attention. His solo number "Revelation" is, well, just that. The Barrymore Awards may be eleven months away, but Mendoza should start writing his acceptance speech now.
Adrift in Macao is far from perfect. Christopher Durang's script has wild moments of invention, but is a little too cute for its own good. Still, it has a lot of laughs, plus a lot of good songs and an amazing cast to sing them. And sometimes, that's all you need in a musical.
Adrift in Macao runs through Sunday, November 20 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $31 to $49, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com, or by visiting the box office.
Adrift in Macao
CAST (in order of appearance):