When British playwright Brandon Thomas penned this lighthearted romp in 1892, he could have no idea this sojourn through the romantic mis-adventures of three upper crust Oxford chums would still be actively produced worldwide more than a hundred years later, or that, over the years, it would boost the careers of such Hollywood stalwarts as Jack Benny, Ray Bolger, Jose Ferrer and Rene Auberjonois. Director Ellen Geer and her Topanga Canyon-based Theatricum Botanicum troupe have taken Thomas’ work to a new level of froth, adding a series of entr’acte oleo songs that would have done credit to any 19th century British music hall.
Geer gives her capable ensemble full comedic reign while never allowing the farce to undermine Thomas’ satirical commentary on the social and moral structure of his times. The well-cast aristocratic trio of Jack Chesney (Aaron Hendry), Charles Wykeham (Gerritt VanderMeer) and Lord Fancourt Babberly (Justin Doran) are disdainfully imperious young men of no means, who constantly sponge off each other and Jack’s dour, long-suffering working class manservant, Brassett (Robert Bresnik), to stay in good supply of champagne and cigars.
Jack and Charles are reduced to puppy dog enthusiasm, however, while planning an afternoon’s visit from their respective lady loves Kitty (Willow Geer-Alsop) and Amy (Inara George), which will be properly chaperoned by Charles’ soon-to-arrive rich and widowed aunt, Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez (Melora Marshall). The action kicks into high gear when auntie fails to show, and the duo, ever mindful of the social conventions that rule them all, browbeats a very reluctant Babberly into donning a dress and impersonating the old woman long enough for his pals to declare their marital intentions to the young ladies.
Geer makes masterful use of Theatricum’s sprawling bucolic splendor as characters flow in and out of the action while the faux auntie is desperately attempting to escape the greedy attentions of Jack’s father, Sir Francis Chesney, and Amy’s uncle, Stephen Spettigue, played to stiff-upper-lip perfection by Sheridan Crist and Alan Blumenfeld, respectively.
One of the comedic highlights of the production is the sight of the monumentally long-legged Doran, skirt hiked to his waist, sprinting over hill and dale with the rotund Blumenfeld in gasping pursuit.
The tidy resolution to all these romantic intentions isn’t nearly as much fun as the preceding zaniness that eventually unites all the couples, including Sir Francis with the love of his youth, Donna Lucia, as well as the cross-dressing Babberly with Donna’s youthful ward, Ela (Megan Geer-Alsop).
Complimenting the entire production are Kim de Shazo’s wonderful, period-evoking costumes and the piano accompaniment of Miss Fanny Brice (that’s her name), who backs members of the ensemble as they warble such ditties as “After the Ball,” “Ta Ra Ra Boo De-Ay!,” “By the Beautiful Sea” and the show-closing, “In the Good Old Summertime.”