Review: ‘No Way to Treat a Lady’
‘Noir’ musical kills at Meadow Brook
By John Quinn
Saturday night I left home earlier than usual for Meadow Brook Theatre, but hadn’t allowed for the Monster Truck Jam at the Silverdome. As I crept along I-75, I mused on a culture where every theater in Michigan struggles to get an audience but crushing sheet metal turns a major expressway into a parking lot.
Although I’m glad I made it (two minutes to spare), management held the curtain because about half the audience were still in the traffic jam. How lucky for them: Nobody should have missed a minute of the fun to be had in “No Way to Treat a Lady.”
Douglas J. Cohen is a triple threat talent; he’s responsible for book, music and lyrics. His award-winning musical comedy is going on two decades old, and harkens back to a simpler time for musical theater. It’s the antithesis of the mega-musical: only four actors and four musicians, a little play about little people. You won’t be humming the tunes on leaving the theater; while the music brings to mind a young Mr. Sondheim, there are no memorable melodies. The lyrics, happily, advance the plot; there’s less spoken dialogue than one would expect.
Played on a vibrant Pop Art set by Peter W. Hicks, “Lady” is the story of sad sack NYPD detective Morris Brummel; life is pulling him in too many directions. Investigating the crimes of a serial killer known as the Strangler, he meets the lovely Sarah Stone. For the first time, Morris sees an alternative to living with his smothering mother, and begins a courtship. This doesn’t sit well with the Strangler, failed actor Kit Gill, who would (literally) kill for attention and resents that Morris might have more pleasant things on his mind.
“No Way to Treat a Lady” is a happy union of first-rate talent. Director John M. Manfredi has assembled an endearing cast to bring Cohen’s clever characters to life. Jennifer Joan Joy brings sweetness to Sarah Stone, not to mention a powerful, dead-on soprano.
Alan Ball, as a world-weary detective who realizes he’s missing out on the good things in life, is the perfect foil for the nuttier characters on stage.
Nuttiest of all is Andrew Huff’s Kit Gill. Now there’s probably a potential serial killer in every actor, but Huff pushes the character to its limit – impish, vain and thoroughly mad.
Not to be outdone, Kate Willinger Manfredi delivers the goods in multiple roles, assorted mothers and murder victims. Most memorable, though, is Flora, a gentle poke at the stereotype of the Jewish mother. It’s no surprise that the number, “So Much In Common,” when Morris brings Sarah home to meet Mom, is a crowd pleaser.
I hope the Truck Jam fans left the Silverdome in the same good spirits as I left Meadow Brook. I still think I got the better deal.
“No Way to Treat a Lady,” a co-production of the BoarsHead Theatre and Meadow Brook Theatre, plays Wed.-Sun at Meadow Brook Theatre on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester, through Jan. 29. Tickets: $20-$36. For information: 248-377-3300 or http://www.mbtheatre.com
The Bottom Line: Murder makes an entertaining theme in this satisfying musical crime caper.
Greek Classic no tragedy for Detroit’s Hilberry Theatre
By John Quinn
A powerful mogul sacrifices his daughter to win the help of angry allies. Leaving his wife in charge of the family business, he’s off on an extended trip to restore his brother’s failed marriage. Enraged wife takes a lover who takes over the business and her bed. They murder Hubby on his return.
The daughter, horrified at the murder of her father and certain her mother means to kill her own son (and rightful heir), spirits her brother out of harm’s way. When we catch up to her years later, she daily mourns the death of her father and awaits deliverance by her avenging brother.
No, this isn’t a new series for Showtime. It’s the 2,400-year-old plot of “Electra” by Greek playwright Sophocles, which is getting an “everything old is new again” production at the Hilberry Theatre. And while a dusty classic may not be “electra-fying” (God, you KNEW that was coming, so let’s get it out of the way), it can be an eye-opener. If nothing else, we learn really great art can be really entertaining.
Director Joe Calarco chose not to update “Electra” and gives us a streamlined version of a Classical production. Not to worry – how sharp and clear the text comes across! We know these characters; the motivations are familiar, the violence is tame compared to cable TV.
If anything, Mr. Calarco and his cast could have stepped farther into the ritualistic nature of Greek tragedy – not that it’s being ignored. But an over-the-top style nicely complements the heightened emotions of the characters. Hats off, then, to Michael Brian Ogden as Orestes, the long-lost son; his balanced reading illuminates a character that is more personification of Vengeance than human being without the context in which it was conceived.
But what is revelatory in “Electra” is how this ancient piece treats its ladies. The two opposing women are fully developed, complex characters. Jennifer McConnell as Electra and Carly Germany as Clytemnestra, her mother, are sparkling when alone. When together, they are the poles of a dramatic dynamo.
I suppose, though, that in a post-Modern drama Electra wouldn’t wait years for her avenger brother: she’d have killed her mother herself. I wonder if I can pitch it to Showtime?
“Electra” plays in repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit, through March 23. Tickets: $20-$28. For information: 313-577-2972 or http://www.hilberry.com
The Bottom Line: An emotion-packed oldie shows off its classic roots in an illuminating production.