The 1960 movie version of Shaw’s 1935 comedy “The Millionairess” starring a miscast Sophia Loren is generally regarded as a messy travesty. The same analysis is well earned by this misbegotten co-production by the Orpheum Theater-Foxborough and Shakespeare & Company starring a miscast Raquel Welch.
Not that all the blame can be laid on Welch’s shoulders. The production’s worst elements are, without doubt, John Pennoyer’s utterly hideous and amateurish sets and costumes, though Tina Packer’s vulgar direction runs almost neck and neck. Nevertheless, this is Welch’s second time around with “The Millionairess”_ she appeared in a provincial tour of the play in England several years ago. It’s time for her to cease and desist.
Written when Shaw was 79, “The Millionairess” was often referred to as a potboiler by him. It’s better than that, though not topdrawer Shaw, and over the years its Shavian superwoman title character has attracted such wildly different actresses as Jessie Royce Landis, Katharine Hepburn, Edith Evans, Phyllis Neilson-Terry and Carol Channing. So Welch is not necessarily a totally off-the-wall piece of casting.
But she needs far subtler handling than she’s received from Packer. Then again, everyone in the cast plays so broadly that this seems to be what Packer wants. Question is, where is the Shavian panache, wit and social comment?
Welch herself sometimes looks as though she’s in burlesque because of her costumes and wigs. She makes her entrance (the production using a bit of business from Hepburn in which the millionairess enters, exits and re-enters) wearing full black mourning, veil and all, except that her plunging neckline is more Welch than Shaw’s Epifania. Her out-of-control birds nest wig of red curls doesn’t help either. Subsequent costumes and wigs are no improvement.
To her credit, Welch knows her many lines (though the script has been cut) and delivers them with a certain tempo. But she’s always herself, always self-conscious, never Shaw’s steamroller multi-millionairess who can always get what she wants though she doesn’t necessarily know what she wants. She does, however, seem to enjoy her physical fight with her literary lounge lizard admirer Adrian (a dreadfully costumed wimp as played by Allyn Burrows).
Director Packer, the founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., where this production has already run, tends to place her cast in straight lines facing the audience. She has also come up with all sorts of odd extraneous ideas rather than attempt to explore the play itself, not least being the use of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” as a theme song. The lawyer Epifania consults (Michael Hammond) is given an Australian accent even though he’s an Englishman who has only spent a few years in Australia, while her athlete husband (James Andreassi) has been turned into a vaudeville Italian cliche.
As for the play’s odd third act, set in a sweatshop, the performances here are so over the top that Karen Beaumont’s poverty stricken wife comes across like a man in drag. But then this whole production, particularly it’s ghastly sets, is indeed a travesty.
Welch’s Epifania conveniently supplies its epitaph when toward the end of its fourth act she announces “I can bear no more of this vulgarity.” Who are we to disagree?