A BEGGAR'S HOLIDAY
Cardiff Giant at Ann Sather Restaurant
Sometimes "Christmas cheer" seems a contradiction in terms: you can take only so much forced jollity and warm personal wishes from Commonwealth Edison before Scrooge's cynicism and the Grinch's larceny begin to make sense. But we carry on, hoping for happiness and settling for gifts.
Several considerate theaters of- fer help for the holiday-impaired: Rage!!!, or I'll Be Home for Christmas at Synergy, Inspecting Carol at Steppenwolf, and Hellcab Does Christmas at Famous Door. Now Cardiff Giant, a troupe that loves its comedy dark, weighs in with the premiere of A Beggar's Holiday, a 70-minute late-night musical performed upstairs at Ann Sather Restaurant. Ho, ho, ugh.
With a peppy score by director Patrick Sinozich, wacky plot by Bob Fisher, Mark Hollmann, and Sinozich, and Fisher's daffy dialogue, the Giant's antimusical takes a sardonic look at a Christmas soiree thrown by two well-heeled climbers who hope to raise money for their dear friend Pastor Jim and his Society of the Reaching Glove. Of course the guests are narcissistic phonies with big bankrolls and even bigger egos. And of course Pastor Jim is a bad shepherd, his church a swindle begging for exposure. Needing a human testimonial to the worth of his ministry, Pastor Jim bribes a bum to crash the party: thus the beggar's holiday. The bum's arrival unmasks a slew of dire conspiracies, and the bum himself wins the hand of his former high school sweetheart, who decides she'd like to be picturesquely poor.
As with Cardiff Giant's 1992 winter hit After Taste, the good part is Sinozich's all-purpose score, which opens with a hilariously skewed medley of carols and noncarols. Packed with such showstoppers as an ode to food (belted out with bravura by Seri Johnson), a torch song to a burning cigarette, and the pointlessly elaborate production number "Reaching Glove," these songs may yet survive the show.
The bad part is the rest of the play. Nothing else about A Beggar's Holiday recalls the good times and sharp satire of After Taste. The target here--selfish rich people--is, considering the talent involved, a cheap and easy one. The plot, seemingly convoluted out of pure perversity, founders on its own unfocused quirkiness, and the anything-for-a-laugh staging throttles the audience with screamer histrionics. Then there are the two semirepellent stereotyped gay characters (whose limp-wristed duet, "My Man Santa Claus," gives new meaning to the South Pole). Ann Sather can't stock enough booze to make this tripe go down.
The cast of 14 give this twaddle more life than it merits; ever-faithful to the nonsense, they go out of control, off the deep end, and up the wall, usually all at once. (If he ever acquires a third dimension, Jim Blanchette's minister might yet prove a sly caricature.)
THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER
Athenaeum Theatre Company
If A Beggar's Holiday is a coal in your stocking, The Prince and the Pauper, a world premiere by the Athenaeum Theatre Company, is an unforced delight. In Mark Twain's justifiably beloved tale a beggar boy and crown prince, look-alikes born on the same day, switch places to learn how the other half lives; every leader should mix with his people once a reign/term. And The Prince and the Pauper is a lot more credible than such spin-offs as Trading Places or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. It's also a classic child's fantasy--to imagine that the family you deserve is royalty, not your embarrassingly real one.
Devilishly plotted, The Prince and the Pauper provides a strong book for this bright new musical by playwright-composer-musical director Christopher Moore. With a swift-moving story, serviceable lyrics, and a few big Broadway-style musical numbers, Moore's creation is as wise and warm as its source. For her painstaking staging Debbie Pekin has assembled a strong-singing, hard-acting ensemble and full-powered orchestra able to give these new songs their best possible first performance.
Though a few numbers may have a life of their own (like the rollicking "No Rest for the Wicked," sung by a den of London thieves), mostly Moore has refused to stop the show to curry favor with the audience; instead he single-heartedly tells the story through the songs. Still, some selections seem to come out of nowhere, such as the lullaby cooed by the poor boy's mother, whom we hardly know, and the novelty duet between bad-guy Lord Hertford and the lady he's seduced by tying her to a chair. Even these genre songs come close to justifying themselves, however.
There are some dramatic lapses too: Moore shortchanges the wonderful moment when Miles Hendon, the prince's rescuer, learns that the imperious boy he's befriended really is the heir to the throne, by which point their friendship is too strong to founder on class distinctions. We also never learn what happens to the pauper's horrible father. (Even the sweet-tempered Athenaeum audience would have delighted in his death.)
What makes this venture glow is not the stock-company set pieces or even Michelle Foland's impressive Tudor costumes. It's the talented actors, who lavish a ton of care on their well-wrought parts. Ron Sherry plays and sings the plucky pauper with equal measures of sunny confidence and wide-eyed confusion--a rich mix considering the boy's checkered adventures. As Edward Tudor, Dan Vincent mellows well, from a spoiled brat to a caring king. David Gethmann makes his mark as swashbuckling, good-hearted Miles, a role that unmistakably evokes Errol Flynn, while Tom Quinn is delightfully sinister as Lord Hertford.
All in all, a grand new holiday show.