Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The final musical theater production of the 2005-2006 season at the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) is Flora, The Red Menace, presented as part of their Studio Series. Mixing politics, romance, and humor together can make for a rewarding show, but this show's weak storyline limits its appeal, despite some strong performances from the CCM students.
Flora, The Red Menace is based on the novel "Love Is Just Around The Corner" by Lester Atwell. The show debuted on Broadway in 1965, and was mounted again Off-Broadway in 1987 with a revised book. The show follows the antics of Flora, a recent high school graduate in 1935 New York. Despite the Depression, Flora enthusiastically seeks employment as a fashion illustrator, while also renting out a studio to other struggling artists. She soon meets a shy fellow illustrator and begins to fall in love. When Flora's new boyfriend Harry tells her that he's a communist, Flora tries to balance her relationship, her feelings towards this new political outlook, and a new high-paying job at a leading department store.
To most modern theater enthusiasts, Flora is known for two things: the Broadway debut of Liza Minnelli (she won a Tony for the role) and the first pairing of John Kander and Fred Ebb as a songwriting team. Though this score doesn't contain as many stand alone gems as subsequent Kander/Ebb shows such as Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, there is much to admire. Songs such as "Unafraid", "Not Everyday of the Week", "All I Need Is One Good Break", and "Sing Happy" contain likeable jaunty melodies and witty lyrics, and more than hint at the talent that this pair would later put to greater use. "A Quiet Thing" is the show's most well-known tune, with a delicate melody and lyrics conveying Flora's surprise that success can be a simple internal pleasure requiring contemplation rather than exclamations of excitement.
The book of the show is highly problematic, and is what makes it a rarely produced musical. This production uses the revised book by David Thompson (Steel Pier, Thou Shalt Not); whether this is an improvement over the original adaptation of the novel by George Abbott is hard to say. Part of the problem is that the show suffers from an identity crisis, never really knowing if it is a love story, a political drama pitting communism against capitalism, or a low-brow musical comedy. While many other shows have tackled social issues, humor, and romance together with great success, this one does not. Also, there are a number of plot points that are unsupported, such as the reason behind Flora's initial attraction to Harry. In addition, while the show starts out hopeful and bright, it slides towards a more pessimistic viewpoint until the end, when Flora is crying and broken. The book, like many flop musicals, just doesn't support the stronger score sufficiently.
The director of this production, Robert Wood, does incorporate some nice touches here and there, but he makes a few mistakes along the way as well. Wood's accomplishments include smooth transitions, nice pacing, and staging many scenes to get the most out of the show's humor (which relies heavily on sight gags and physical comedy). However, some of the characters are presented too broadly, lacking the needed warmth or depth. It is the director's job to rein in and shape these performances to best fit the material, and the show is lacking in this area. Also, some of the details seem wrong, such as using black lace in one scene where a dress is being made, and then the dress being all white when finished (more than one theatergoer could be heard mentioning this inconsistency as the show let out). Choreography by Brandon Bieber is fun and lively, and accompaniment by Andrew Smithson is first rate.
Even when the material or other elements let down a show at CCM, their constantly replenished talent pool always seems to rise to the occasion. As Flora, Carly Stotts sings well and captures the goofy, aggressive confidence of the character appropriately. Sean Montgomery almost steals the show as Harry, the nervous and idealistic boyfriend. He capably stutters through the dialogue as called upon, and sings with great passion. Sarah Jay displays a fiery sensuality as Communist zealot Charlotte, and provides an intense performance of "The Flame." Among the ensemble, Mitchell Walker impresses with his beautiful voice, and student choreographer Bieber and Alessa Neeck spectacularly execute the challenging dance moves in "Keepin' It Hot."
The limited scenic design by Tanner Cosgrove for this black box presentation creatively incorporates clotheslines, and the lighting by Dmitri Salmin establishes sufficient mood.
Theatergoers should be thankful for the opportunity to see rare shows like Flora, The Red Menace, and CCM's Studio Series has provided such chances for many years now. While this production isn't perfect, no mounting is likely to overcome the show's weak book. There is much to admire still, especially a new crop of student performers, and we look forward to seeing them in future productions at CCM as well. Flora, The Red Menace was presented at CCM from May 11 - 13, 2006.-- Scott Cain