Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As a beautiful and alluring woman, Betty uses her loveless marriage to British diplomat Arthur Pack as point of entry to the exhilarating world of foreign capitals, embassy balls and affairs with dashing men of varied nationalities. After using her wiles to free a paramour captured in the Spanish Civil War, Betty's talent for getting the powerful men she beds to do her bidding catches the attention of British intelligence preparing for the looming war against Nazi Germany. Betty agrees to serve the Allied cause, driven both by her belief in the cause and the adrenaline charge of putting herself in danger. Her daring-do contributes to a major turning point against the Nazi forces in North Africa.
Dirty Business, with book and lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge and music by Robert Elhai, embroids upon Betty Pack's remarkable story the lives of three other women whose efforts to secure the Allied victory in World War II have been largely neglected by history. Vera Atkins, born as Vera Rosenberg, a Romanian Jew, emigrates to England in 1937 in the face of the growing Nazi menace. She becomes an intelligence officer for the British Special Operations Executive, charged to recruit, train and deploy British agents in France, responsible for women in essential roles as couriers and wireless operators. Elizabeth Friedman was an American poetry scholar whose genius for language became the portal for her work as cryptanalyst, first tracking down prohibition bootleggers, then German naval codes. Her work for the U.S. Navy led to breaking the German Enigma codes essential to the war effort.
The fourth woman is the fabled Josephine Baker, an African-American entertainer who moved to Paris and became a French citizen to escape the race-based discrimination and humiliation in the United States. During World War II, Baker uses her notoriety as a beloved entertainer to gather information overheard among embassy officials frequenting fashionable night spots and parties. In 1941 she moves to the French colonies in North Africa, ostensibly for her health, but the real reason is to further her work with the French resistance.
Any one of these women could be the subject of a play of their own, and Josephine Baker's life is the subject of several films, plays, and a long-gestating musical. But the focus of Dirty Business is Pack, in part because of her slight Minnesota connection, and perhaps also because her story is both racy and romantic, ripe to be seen on stage. The depth of her narrative is diminished, by necessity, to make room for the others, while Friedman, Atkins, and Baker's stories suffer for their lack of details and a broader context. Considering all that, a remarkable amount of information about all four women and is crammed into the show, and each emerges as a distinguished and courageous historical figure.
The strength in having the other three heroines framing Pack's journey is that they serve as a kind of "sisterhood," lending credence to the understanding that not only one rare woman, but many brave women, were crucial to the war effort. Though in life these women did not work together, their presence behind one another in musical numbers creates a montage illustrating their cumulative power. Along the way are frequent explanations as to why their stories are so relatively unknown, which boil down to male vanity and sexism. Whether this cadre of female heroes strengthens the musical, or it would be more muscular focusing on the singular Betty Pack is an open question.
Laurie Flanigan Hegge's book does an excellent job of melding so much historic detail with invented scenarios and dialogue to map out these complicated stories. The score, with Elhai's music and lyrics provided by Hegge, serves the show well, though none of the songs are stand-out numbers on their own. The title song, heard as the introduction and finale, as well as at the act one curtain, sets a tone of the secretive and shadowy lives these women choose to live, giving up the safe domesticity that was the norm for woman of their time.
The songs "Honey in the Trap" and "Betty Think!" map out Pack's process for solving obstacles in the course of her pursuits, while her inner life is revealed in several songs"Who Can I Trust?," "Here I Am," and "I've Always Known"that provide a balance between the musical's action and emotional elements. As a famed entertainer, Josephine Baker's songs would seem a natural to soar to the roof. "Ah Paris!" is too tame for Baker's legendary scorching performance style, though "Play 'Em Like a Piano" comes close, and "The Rose of Warsaw" effectively depicts pre-war intelligence networks in the Polish capital. The only musical number given to the men, the humorous "Better Notters," has Nevil Chamberlain and three of his cronies warning Winston Churchill not to turn Hitler against the British, reminiscent of "Cool, Cool Conservative Men" from 1776.
The performances by the four women are all first rate, especially Kendall Anne Thompson, magnetic as Betty Pack. She captures the self-confidence, courage, sex-drive, and thirst for adventure that animates Pack, with rich vocal delivery that veers between irony, fatalism and longing. Jennifer Baldwin Peden conveys Vera Atkins' stoic determination, knowing that some of her agents will not make it back alive. Melanie Wehrmacher depicts the unswerving dedication of Elizabeth Friedman even as she chafes at the men who take credit for her work. Timotha Lanae is silky divinity as the chanteuse Josephine Baker who masks her steel core beneath a chiffon-draped exterior.
The male characters in Dirty Business are less notable than the women, with all but one of seven men in the cast playing multiple roles. Randy Schmeling makes the deepest impression as Charles Brousse, a Vichy French diplomat who gives up his former life for Betty. Ryan London Levin is striking as the prideful Polish officer Kulikowski, Rodolfo Nieto is commanding as her Spaniard lover Sartorius, and Gary Briggle offers a winning take on Winston Churchill's bulldog persona.
Ron Peluso's direction of Dirty Business moves the action at a fast clip, creating especially in the scenes that depict Pack's escapades a sense of the harrowing risks she took. Peluso uses his ensemble to create vibrant stage pictures that enhance the drama and the shared mission that are the foundation of the work. Dirty Business is not a dance-heavy show, but choreographer Tinia Moulder adds liveliness and sleek movements that embellish the delivery of the narrative.
The tech and design credits are all first rate, with E. Amy Hill providing wonderful period costumes, and the video backgrounds created by Miko Simmons creating essential transitions from scene to scene, fading in and out with a fluid dynamism that contributes greatly to the show's sense of forward thrust.
Most of History Theatre's productions are world premieres that illustrate Minnesota's historic and cultural legacysome achievements to be celebrated, others troubling aspects of our past. Dirty Business has a toe in that pond, thanks to Betty Pack's origins, but the story spreads out on a far more global stage and could easily win over anyone interested in World War II history and espionage, or and in bringing to light the courageous work of women that has long received short shrift. Or, who just enjoys a good yarn with sex, intrigue, romance and danger.
There are some missteps in the dialogue, as when Betty, against all odds, rescues her Spanish lover who has been beaten and tortured, and the first words out of his mouth are "You look ravishing," getting unintended audience laughs. The score could be more robust and, with stronger dancers, the choreography might be a more incisive element in telling the story. That said, Dirty Business has the basic ingredients for a top-flight musical. With more tightening here, some pumping up there, it could easily steal its way onto other stages around the nation.
Dirty Business, through May 26, 2019, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $37.00 - $56.00; seniors (age 60+) $32.00 - $55.00; under 30 $30.00; students $15.00. All Tier 4 tickets: $25.00. For tickets and information, call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Book and Lyrics: Laurie Flanigan Hegge; Music: Robert Elhai; Director: Ron Peluso; Music Director: Jane Endres; Choreographer: Tinia Moulder; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Video Design: Miko Simmons; Dramaturg: Kate Sandvik; Intimacy Choreographer: Eva Gemio; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Assistant Director: Meggie Greivell; Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith.
Cast: Gary Briggle (Shelley/Churchill/ensemble), William Gilness (Stephenson), Jon Andrew Hegge (Pack/Chamberlain/Donovan/ensemble), Timotha Lanae (Josephine Baker/ensemble), Ryan London Levin (Safe Cracker/Kulikowski/ensemble), Rodolfo Nieto (Sartorius, Rygor, ensemble), Jennifer Baldwin Peden (Vera Atkins/ensemble), Bob Beverage (Lubienski/Morganthau/ensemble), Randy Schmeling (Gubbins/Brousse/ensemble), Kendall Anne Thompson (Betty Pack), Melanie Wehrmacher (Elizabeth Friedman).