Off Off Loop Theater Festival: High Fidelity/Mo' Better Blue Velvet, or David Lynch Mob Mentality/Babes in Arms, Act I | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Off Off Loop Theater Festival: High Fidelity/Mo' Better Blue Velvet, or David Lynch Mob Mentality/Babes in Arms, Act I


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New Tuners Theatre


North Avenue Productions


Musical Repertorie Theatre Company

"A Matinee for Music and Laughter" is the title of the Off Off Loop Theater Festival's Sunday-afternoon program. Music, yes--there's reams of it, some of it rather well sung and played. But precious little laughter, or entertainment for that matter, is to be found in these three failed efforts.

Almost no failure is beyond redemption, however; higher standards and hard work could pull at least the first of the shows up to a professionally acceptable level in the future. High Fidelity is a comic opera currently being developed under the auspices of New Tuners Theatre, and its score by Philip Seward shows substantial promise. Seward has both technical skill and a good ear, judging by this derivative but quite listenable collection of Offenbachian barcaroles and Bizet-influenced habaneras; if the music's conservative, it's quite appropriate to the story's turn-of-the-century setting and its source in short plays by Anton Chekhov (The Bear) and George Bernard Shaw (How He Lied to Her Husband).

Reset in a semirural community in Lake County in the early 1900s, High Fidelity concerns a young widow, Aurora Wentworth, who clings indulgently to the melancholy pleasures of pining for her dead husband until she is shaken out of her sorrow by an abrasive male visitor, Theodore Bompass (rhymes with "rumpus" in one of the libretto's more irritating couplets). Bompass holds Aurora accountable for a debt owed him by her late husband; she can't pay; and their argument escalates until Bompass, no gentleman he, challenges Aurora to a duel--and she spunkily accepts the challenge. The first act, which is all that's presented here, ends with a bang and a blackout, leaving us to wonder who shot whom and where (stay tuned for act two some time in the future).

The problem with High Fidelity as it stands now is that it's a bore. But it needn't be; there's nothing wrong that a good librettist and a pair of pruning shears couldn't fix. Seward writes nice music--but not so nice that it can stand up under the numerous, increasingly annoying repeats that he uses to chart Bompass and Aurora's mounting conflict. The rigid and repetitive compositional structure is particularly intrusive in one monologue, in which the hotheaded Bompass clumsily breaks up most of Aurora's drawing-room furniture; the potentially funny physical comedy sinks under sluggish timing as we wait for Seward to finish his phrases.

Seward also makes the mistake of having the characters sing exactly what they're feeling, rather than using subtext to suggest rather than state their developing emotions. Nor does he have any feel for imagery to convey his story's ideas without beating us over the head with them. As a result, the libretto consists almost entirely of variations on "Why won't she pay?" and "Who is he?" (Another novice librettist's mistake: too many questions, which bog the action down rather than moving it along.)

If these problem areas are addressed, Seward might wind up with a nice chamber-sized dark comedy--a lucrative operatic genre, as Gian Carlo Menotti has long since proved. The current production, meanwhile, offers one beautifully sung performance by Annette Sterner as Aurora, and three reasonably well sung ones by Jeff Ray as Bompass, Nancy Jane Nelson as Aurora's hot-blooded young maid, and M. Trent Phifer as Bompass's valet, as well as sterling accompaniment by pianist Cynthia Stevens and a serviceably handsome staging by Ted Hoerl and Joan Mazzonelli, creatively designed by Thomas B. Mitchell (set) and Nora-Lee Luttrell (costumes).

After that, with apologies to Dorothy Parker, you might as well leave. If you stay, you'll see a truly mediocre set of improv-style sketches by North Avenue Productions, which is to Second City what the Chicago Park District's Theatre-on-the-Lake is to Steppenwolf. (A typical example of this show's idea of character comedy: "Shut up, mother," barks an exasperated woman to her nagging, elderly mother. "Don't talk to me that way," responds the old nag. "Put a lid on it," rejoins the daughter. "That's better," says Mom.) Titled Mo' Better Blue Velvet, or David Lynch Mob Mentality, this is an alleged "best of" compilation from the group's last three shows. I shudder to think what the other material was like.

Then if you still stay, you'll suffer Hart failure. Lorenz Hart, that is, who wrote the lyrics and coauthored the script of the 1937 musical Babes in Arms to Richard Rodgers's tunes. Musical Repertorie Theatre, which reportedly is dedicated to the preservation of classic musical theater, embalms rather than preserves this classic in its intolerably sluggish production. The script (updated to include references to Rodgers and Hammerstein, VistaVision and Todd-AO, Lolita, and other post-1937 phenomena) is by George Oppenheimer, based on the one Rodgers and Hart wrote originally. The story's basically the same: a group of stagestruck kids get together to put on an original show as a way to fight off the drudgery of forced labor (on a work farm in the original--here the setting's a stock theater that exploits its young apprentice members). This sketchy plot is the hook on which hang such enduring songs as "Where or When," "The Lady Is a Tramp" (not used in this production, which is only the show's first act), "My Funny Valentine" (surely the unattractive, self-hating Hart's fantasy expression of what he wanted a lover to say to him--"Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / Yet you're my favorite work of art"), and the deliciously antiromantic "I Wish I Were in Love Again" ("When love congeals / It soon reveals / The faint aroma of performing seals / The double-crossing of a pair of heels / I wish I were in love again!").

The cast generally sing well to musical director Richard T. Keitel's reliable accompaniment; James Rank exhibits a particularly pleasing voice in "Where or When," though unfortunately he's paired in this duet with the often out-of-tune Kristen Reninger. But Ben Tweel's direction is just awful. It prompts from the actors the worst imaginable combination of exaggeration and lifelessness--lots of mugging, but with no sparkle or sense of timing. The dreadful dance staging is uncredited--a wise decision, perhaps, by a choreographer embarrassed to invite comparison to George Balanchine, who choreographed the original. MRT is reportedly trying to raise money to stage the full Babes in Arms later this season. But fun, not funding, is the missing element here.

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