Attending South Coast Rep’s world premiere of “An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville” is like stepping into a time machine — not back to the boulevard comedy’s turn of the century setting but to the 1960s, the heyday of Off Broadway jewel-box period tuners like “Ernest in Love” and “Man With a Load of Mischief.” Many of that breed were stodgily precious, but as helmed by Stefan Novinski, John Strand’s Americanization of the 19th century warhorse is a witty, footloose crowd-pleaser.
In transforming 1851 Paris to 1906 Gotham, Strand retains the central saga of a young rake (Kevin Odekirk) distracted on his wedding day when his horse consumes the titular headgear, property of a married bourgeois (Michelle Duffy) engaged in shrubbery canoodle with a soldier (Damon Kirsche).
Since appearing in public sans chapeau is tantamount to wearing a scarlet A, our hero, here called Fadley, is charged with scouring the town for a replacement, his puzzled but indefatigable wedding party ever at his heels.
The elegant logic, as farces go, of the (curiously unbilled) Eugene Labiche/M. Marc-Michel original, and its opportunities for gently satirical jibes at the middle-class types Fadley encounters, inspired a brilliant Rene Clair silent comedy and “Horse Eats Hat,” from a young Orson Welles and the Mercury Players. Strand’s is less consciously stylized than previous versions, more beholden to the American vaudeville presentational tradition of audience interaction, “Who’s on First” wordplay and rim-shot acknowledgment of the worst puns.
His “Italian Straw Hat” boasts what many others have lacked: an eminently playable text with polished but never stuffy dialogue. Whenever light on jokes, it’s long on atmosphere.
Adaptation also restores the farce’s musical interludes, sometimes just eight-line throwaways set by Labiche to popular tunes back when everything was in public domain. Here, with Dennis McCarthy’s appealing new music redolent of the hurdy-gurdy and D’Oyly Carte, Strand’s revised lyrics exude period feel and extend the comical biz (though Novinski permits too much applause after the briefer ditties; sharper timing will keep the momentum going).
Helmer achieves the perfect balance between performance ease and character need. He permits no mugging, screeching or out-of-control physical business; cast maintains period composure and savoir-faire while never disguising their increasing desperation — the ultimate farcical hat trick.
Principal underplayer is Odekirk, stepping in for an ailing Daniel Blinkoff but betraying no air of the understudy in charm or comic technique. His silky romantic tenor is splendidly featured in his love duet “I Wanted Strong” with fetching inamorata Helen (Erika Whalen).
Excellent doubling by the large cast offers a hilarious cross-section of Gothamites, notably Alan Blumenthal’s roguish servant and phlegmatic bathroom fixtures mogul; Duffy’s determined coquette and dowager Baroness; and Patrick Kerr’s deaf uncle and “Borat”-inspired viscount. Single funniest turn comes from Kasey Mahaffy as a clerk convinced spirits are following him (it may sound like a lame premise, but he’s a stitch).
Shigeru Yaji’s gorgeous costumes, it must be said, don’t always appear to best advantage against the beige-and-purple palette of Donna Marquet’s sets. Weird shadows and patchiness come in whenever Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s footlights try too hard to evoke 19th century theatricality. Still, text and cast set off a more than adequate glow throughout.