Forty-three years ago, the ineffectively written “Flora, the Red Menace” offered enough early Kander and Ebb ballads and comedy songs to turn Liza Minnelli into a Tony-winning star in the title role. More star-making may well be in the offing, as the Reprise revival of the ineffectively rewritten tuner brings Eden Espinosa to the forefront. Anyone interested in musical theater would be foolish to miss her showcase, though it amounts to one sublime acting turn in the midst of a slapdash near-revue.
Our heroine is one of those plucky Broadway ingenues, an Unsinkable Flora Forbush, whose faith in humanity matches her faith in herself, which is plenty. In the Depression’s depths she builds a career as a fashion illustrator for a Gotham department store while renting out her ballroom-sized studio space to a quintet of wannabe dancers and musicians. (Flora’s landlord status is one of many unconvincing details in David Thompson’s libretto, her profession just an excuse for donning Garry Lennon’s knockout clothes.)
She also flirts with Communism, the direct result of flirting with Harry (Manoel Felciano), a shy stutterer in whose breast the flame of Marx, if not of Cupid, burns bright.
Nudging her friends to work harder while parroting political slogans, Flora could easily become an insufferable yenta. But Espinosa’s outreach comes from a wholehearted, generous place. While Flora’s newfound political faith is ingenuous, she’s savvy enough to notice when reality and rhetoric part company.
Setting aside the chilling edge she brought to Elphaba in the L.A. “Wicked,” thesp radiates equal measures of warmth and idealism in beautifully phrasing such tuneful compositions as “A Quiet Thing” and “Dear Love” and finds profound emotional irony in “Sing Happy.” Each number becomes a pleasing, engaging act of discovery.
Show needs this effervescence badly as it lumbers along, uncertain whether it’s a spoof or character piece (just as Felciano seems uncomfortable veering from Flora’s comic foil to her serious antagonist).
Plot hinges, no kidding, on a misdelivered envelope, and Thompson’s ear for humor rivals that of Friedrich Engels. More disappointingly, “Flora” exudes little feel for the period and none for the nuances of New Deal-era socialism, despite the (quickly abandoned) WPA Federal Theater show-within-a-show format.
Show’s glib politics radiate vague left-of-center empathy for the downtrodden — reflected in generic Marc Blitzstein-inspired anthem “The Joke” — while mocking doctrinaire Reds like Comrade Charlotte (a too-strained Megan Lawrence), whose party discipline is just a tool for advancing her self-absorption and id.
It’s gentle, caring Flora, arranging auditions for her friends and striving to protect striking co-workers, who demonstrates a real collectivist spirit. Carried through, that theme might have unified the piece, but no dice.
Though the material is weak, Reprise is surely living up to its mission in finding an underproduced musical with at least superficial relevance to today and casting it well. Helmer Philip Himberg and choreographer Christopher Pilafian — with asterisked tap help from the reliable Lee Martino — labor valiantly to maintain some style and pace.
The likable tenant quintet, especially Katie O’Toole and Wilkie Ferguson living up to their duet “Keepin’ It Hot,” does its best to disguise their irrelevancy to the story and theme.
And Espinosa is the real deal – not to mention the answer to a prayer for those eager to revive “Funny Girl.”