After the opening-night perf of “Herringbone” was aborted when star B.D. Wong gouged his thigh in a freak onstage accident requiring 30 stitches, the thesp bounced back over the weekend with a smooth, bravura turn in this solo piece marking the early-season start of this year’s Williamstown Theater Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires.
Wong’s likability and the easygoing set-up by helmer (and Williamstown a.d.) Roger Rees does much to offset the musical’s narrative lapses and a darkening second act. The Wong-Rees combo helps the audience swallow the Southern Gothic tale of an eight-year-old Alabama boy possessed by a tap-dancing midget, even when the fable’s meaning remains elusive.
Production lays all its theatrical cards face up with the deliberately casual, it’s-just-a show premise, which may be wise given the ambiguous drifts of Tom Cone’s shaggy-dog script. Before the show even begins in the raw, black-box space, Wong shmoozes with musicians, chats with members of the audience and even makes a cell call in the lobby.
Once the show begins, the quirkiness of the storytelling, the appeal of the music and the skill — not to mention the personality — of the performer make for an entrancing combination. At least for a while.
Set in 1929, the story centers on a struggling family at the start of the Depression. Hopes are dashed when a wealthy relative dies and leaves them not the dough they need but an old Nash and a bit of advice: “Culture in hard times does real well.”
But culture takes many forms in the desperate mind of a delusional dad. When boy George shows a smidgen of talent at an oratory contest, his greedy father pushes the shy-but-dutiful son on the road to show biz — and hopefully Hollywood. He hooks the boy up with an old ham who was half of a vaudevillian team called the Chicken and the Frog until his diminutive partner met an untimely finale. Before you can say “Red Shoes” or even “Sybil,” Frog (aka “Lou”) is inhabiting George’s body, hoofing up a storm, choking Chicken and envisioning a comeback, once removed.
But act two proves more problematic, notably in a disturbing sexual liaison with Lou’s old flame, which spurs a climactic showdown. The resolution is hastily presented and narrative’s net result is murky, making it seem like a promising draft that needs further development.
However, the entertainment level from the star and composers is consistently high. Skip Kennon’s tuneful music and Ellen Fitzhugh’s crafty lyrics capture the vaudevillian audience-friendly elements without playing dumb. Several songs (“One of Those Years,” “Oh, Billy,” “God Said” and “A Mother”) are as fine as those in any smart contemporary hit tuner.
What is always satisfying is the performance of Wong (who played the role in 1992 in Philadelphia). Taking on about 10 roles, the now more mature actor weaves an assured spell of specificity, charm and depth even as the material itself seems to be vague, flat and superficial. It comes as no surprise to see Wong, who first dazzled as a distaff in “M. Butterfly” nearly 20 years ago, do wonders in the parts of George’s mother or grandmother or the midget’s floozie. But he is also masterful switchhitting as the tough father, the vaudevillian, the lost boy and especially the disturbing Lou, who is fascinating, fun and terrifying, all at once.
Wong’s song-and-dance chops are impressive, guided by Darren Lee’s choreography and Dan Lipton’s music direction leading the trio of onstage musicians. (Lipton also does an amusing turn as one of the show’s characters.) Wong dedicates his perf to the late David Rounds, who originated the role Off Broadway in 1982.