Lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse
Book by P. G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton
Directed by Terry McCabe
Musical arranged and directed by Kingsley Day
Choreographed by Amy Uhl
At City Lit Theater, Chicago
Brilliant remount of the 1917 Kern/Wodehouse/Bolton’s Oh, Boy! is authentic to the “Princes Musicals” style.
We read about the early 20th Century musicals that were either revues or loose story musicals that became star vehicles. But there were early pioneers determined to structure a musical to be coherent, tell a story with all the songs designed to carry on the action. Oh, Boy! is one of the first real ‘book’ musicals.
In 1915, Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton and soon P.G. Wodehouse started to create small scale, non-star musicals for producers Comstock and Marbury’s new Princess Theatre. Four ‘Princess Musicals’ were produced between 1915-1920. Oh, Boy! was the most successful playing to an unheard of 463 performances in 1917 and to a successful national tour. The Princess musicals were light weight farces, sophisticated affairs whose songs blended nicely to shape the story and enhance the mood. These intimate shows had small casts thus allowing each member to have ‘their’ moment in the spot light.
Oh, Boy! is a light-weight romantic farce containing lovable characters exhibiting comically innocent yet questionable behavior especially for engaged or married couples. George Budd’s travails include him hiding his bride from his disapproving aunt who controls his finances. The plots gets quirkier when George must conceal a woman who mysteriously appears in his bedroom. Mayhem, clever twists and hilarity propel Bolton and Wodehouse’s book that gets enhanced with the wonderful score by Jerome Kern. Cute ditties, sophisticated melodies with terrifically witty (and cutely rhymed) lyrics by the playful Wodehouse. Songs like “Till the Clouds Roll By” and my favorite “Ain’t It a Grand and a Glorious Feeling” were toe-tapping numbers that I was still humming long after the show.
Kudos to director Terry McCabe and music arranger/director Kingsley Day for remounting this 1917 musical in the exact style of the original. From period set design (by Roger Wykes) that was true to the ‘Princess musicals’ – a single set for each of the two acts to Thomas Kieffer’s colorful and detailed pre-World War I costumes that included feather hats on the ladies and spats on the gentleman, City Lit’s production values hit the mark nicely.
McCabe has cast an enormously talented troupe of triple-threat non-Equity actors who create rich harmonies from Kern’s operetta-style score. The three boys and three girls in the chorus: Jasmine McNeely, Danielle DeFssio, Alex Newkirk, Annie Passanisi, Brett Taylor and Jayme Wiociechowski contributed expert harmonies, nice duets and fine solos while also dancing the smooth soft-shoe choreography by Amy Uhl to precision. They constituted a strong ensemble.
The comedy abounds in Oh, Boy!, especially from the antics of Alex Shoots as the butler, Briggs. Brian-Mark Conover is wonderful as the inept Constable Ira Sims. Patti Roeder almost steals the show with her physical comic turns as the drunken Quaker, Penelope Budd. Kingsley Day moves from his piano to deftly play Judge Carter with Rosalind Hurwitz nailing the role of Mrs. Carter.
The leads demonstrated their triple-threat skills most effectively while enchanting us throughout. Adam Pasen plays the rascal Jim Marvin with a tongue-in-cheek playful bravado while Jennifer T. Grubb is delightful as the scheming Jacky Samson. Sean Knight is terrific as the neurotic groom George Budd. Harmony France is stunningly commanding as George’s bride, Lou Ellen. Passen, Grubbs, Knight and France marvelously land their songs in character. These four have excellent voices that were a joy to the ears. It is wonderful to hear the natural sounds (without amplification) from Kingsley Day’s piano and Anthony Parsons’ clarinet and flute. The blend of music and singing was balanced and pure.
Oh, Boy! is a rare joyous journey back to 1917. It delivers a smart, funny, tuneful trip down memory lane. Besides being an important trend-setting musical that help reshape Broadway, Oh Boy! is a sophisticated farce and a lovely, well-sung musical comedy. Once you realize that your witnessing the exact style from 1917, you begin to embrace its carefree innocence and light operetta motif that makes you smile while tapping your toes. Just sit back and let Oh Boy! entertain you – it surly will with a few laughs.
Congratulations to Terry McCabe and his creative staff for giving us a glimpse into the early roots of contemporary musical comedy by mounting Oh Boy! We need more non-Equity theatre companies (hint to BoHo Theatre, Circle Theatre and Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre) to research and mount worthy early musical comedies. It is important to keep these excellent old-time shows alive for the next generation. Amazingly, Oh, Boy! has not been produced in Chicago since 1918. Thank God, that Terry McCabe did his homework. Oh Boy! is a cute evening of musical theatre no matter its age. It is one of the highlights of the 2010 season! At $25 for a full musical, Oh Boy! is a bargain as well as a treat.
Note: Much of my observations about the Princess Musicals comes from Sheldon Patinkin’s “No Legs, No Jokes, No Chance” textbook and history of the American Musical Theater published by Northwestern University Press, 2008, pp100 -103.
At City Lit Theater , 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue, Chicago, IL, call 773-293-3682, www.citylit.org, tickets $25, senior/student discounts available, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3pm, Two Thursdays at 8 pm (June 17 & 24), running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission.