Palm Beach — The Screwball Musical

Cary Grant ... Katharine Hepburn ... Claudette Colbert ... William Powell. Anyone who lets themselves flash-back to these 1930s screwball comedy icons knows that their defining characteristic, beyond talent and timing, was individuality. In La Jolla Playhouse's misconceived world premiere musical spoof of the screwball genre, the characters, actors and situations have a bland, anonymous quality, and despite a stylish physical production, every zany plot and counterplot is woefully witless and lacking in human dimension.

With:
Jessica - Anastasia Barzee Lance - Matt Cavenaugh Bixby - John Alban Coughlan Tessa 2 - Taryn Darr Character Man - Jay Douglas Tessa 1 - Jennifer Evans Wilton - Ryan Hilliard Leo - Chris Hoch Eustacia - Heather Lee Liz - Erica Piccininni Jimmy - Noah Racey Max - Clarke Thorell Victoria - Amanda Watkins

This review was corrected on June 20, 2005.

Cary Grant … Katharine Hepburn … Claudette Colbert … William Powell. Anyone who lets themselves flash-back to these 1930s screwball comedy icons knows that their defining characteristic, beyond talent and timing, was individuality. In La Jolla Playhouse’s misconceived world premiere musical spoof of the screwball genre, the characters, actors and situations have a bland, anonymous quality, and despite a stylish physical production, every zany plot and counterplot is woefully witless and lacking in human dimension. 

A sample of what’s in store comes early, when overbearing entrepreneur Wilton Fitch converses on the phone with FDR and says, “Hello, Franklin, I’ve got news for you … are you sitting down?” then snorts, “Lighten up, Franklin, it’s just an expression.” Wilton — wildly overplayed by Ryan Hilliard — is father to a family of cacophonous caricatures. One daughter, Jessica (Anastasia Barzee), is a greedy cutthroat intent on inheriting the family fortune and knocking playboy brother Lance (Matt Cavenaugh) out of the picture.

Another daughter, Victoria (Amanda Watkins), a hypochondriac who writes gruesomely bad poetry, fends off the romantic advances of amorous servant Jimmy (Noah Racey). Wilton’s wife, Eustacia (Heather Lee), dithers doltishly around, vaguely suggesting Billie Burke and making inane remarks until she — in the manner of 1930s airheads — reveals unsuspected intelligence and hidden motives. 

The best part of the show comes early with a song titled “To Serve You,” in which choreographer Debbie Roshe stages a dance featuring the nimble tap-dancing of Racey as he makes a pitch for Watkins’ affections. Before long, however, hysteria resumes as Liz (Erica Piccininni), a showgirl fleeing from faithless lover Max (Clarke Thorell), pretends to be an heiress so she can capture Lance Fitch and his millions. Presiding over these shenanigans with blessedly restrained sophistication is Bixby (John Alban Coughlan), a devoted butler, who remembers at all times to supply an urbane William Powell/Melvyn Douglas contrast to the surrounding silliness. 

As written by Benjamin Feldman and Robert Cary, it’s impossible to care about the fates of the frantic protagonists, since they exist only as cartoons to pile gags on. The jokes are more shallow than shocking (e.g., Mrs. Fitch’s delivery of a supposed zinger: “I’ll take a good hand job any day.”)

Puzzlingly enough, the authors ignore a basic rule of the farces they emulate — showcasing one couple and making them shine, while the other characters mill around, either helping or hindering their relationship.

In an enterprise like this, one number can create a star, the way “Great Big Stuff” created buzz for Norbert Leo Butz in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” That showstopper never surfaces, and most of the lyrics are sophomoric and strained. David Gursky’s melodies are moderately tuneful and sometimes, as in Cavenaugh’s “Lise” and Piccininni’s “Who Needs Love?,” they register pleasingly. But “I’m Fine,” a duet by Hilliard and Lee in the vein of Lerner and Loewe’s “I Remember It Well,” suppresses the action with a thud, and most of the other songs are ordinary and fail to push the plot forward. The four musicians recruited are capable, but the score would sound richer and make more of an impression with fuller backing.

Barzee is known for roles in Broadway’s “Urinetown” and “Jekyll and Hyde,” and she might have been effectively villainous here if the script didn’t insist on making her relentlessly one-dimensional. She wears Paul Tazewell’s 1930s costumes with flair, and so does Piccininni, who sings vigorously but lacks the tough gold-digging core that distinguished the calculating antiheroines in “Chicago.” 

There’s also a shortage of grit in Thorell’s portrayal of her opportunistic boyfriend, and Cavenaugh is competent, yet colorless as the family heir with a sexual secret. Chris Hoch and Lee battle energetically to breathe life into stereotypes. Watkins alone supplies an odd, creative quirkiness that validly connects with ’30s comedies.

Director Des McAnuff preserves a vital ingredient of screwball comedy — breakneck pacing — but all his expertise and speed can’t disguise charmless cardboard characters and a story that ties together bits and pieces of old movies without providing the magical lunacy so necessary to their appeal.

Palm Beach -- The Screwball Musical

La Jolla Playhouse; 492 seats; $60 top

Production: A La Jolla Playhouse presentation of a world premiere musical in two acts, with lyrics by Robert Cary and music by David Gursky, book by Cary and Benjamin Feldman. Directed by Des McAnuff.

Crew: Sets, Klara Zieglerova; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Andrew Keister; choreography, Debbie Roshe; music director, Eric Stern; production stage manager, Frank Hartenstein. Opened June 12, 2005; reviewed June 16; runs through July 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Jessica - Anastasia Barzee Lance - Matt Cavenaugh Bixby - John Alban Coughlan Tessa 2 - Taryn Darr Character Man - Jay Douglas Tessa 1 - Jennifer Evans Wilton - Ryan Hilliard Leo - Chris Hoch Eustacia - Heather Lee Liz - Erica Piccininni Jimmy - Noah Racey Max - Clarke Thorell Victoria - Amanda WatkinsEnsemble: Spencer Moses, Ryan Drummond.

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