By John Quinn
There are many film tributes to life in the theater. There are fewer tributes from theater to film. Thus the musical homage to the golden age of cinema, “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” is a rare, witty treat. With words by Dick Vosburgh and music by Frank Lazarus, the show began its Broadway run in 1980, garnering Tommy Tune the Tony Award for Best Choreography.
It’s appropriate that the musical is a double feature – two largely unrelated one acts. “A Day in Hollywood” is a musical review of memorable songs from the Golden Age of motion pictures, plus some original pastiche numbers. The ensemble, clad in the traditional white gloves and pillbox hats of the cinema usher, perform before a representation of the iconic Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theatre.
Since “Hollywood/Ukraine” is only the fourth musical that the Hilberry has presented in its regular season, one might forget that members of the company could be singing/dancing/acting triple threats. The fact that the performances are by and large on the money is due to the coaching of choreographer Jill Dion and the formidable Jeremy Ryan Mossman, the musical director, who one-ups “triple threat” and adds piano accompanist to the list. We can hear every word of the lyrics due to a top class sound design by Becky Garcia.
Act II, “A Night in the Ukraine” is a loose -VERY loose – adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Bear” as it might have been committed by film by the Marx Brothers. The book is zany and very funny. While the non-stop gags are almost all original, they’re certainly firmly rooted in Marx Brothers tradition. The lyrics, too, are all for laughs; they parody the sometimes insipid rhyme schemes and maudlin sentimentality cranked out during the ’30s. The plot is likewise boiler plate: ingenues who fall in love at first sight; a rich, long-suffering widow; an absolute lunatic of a skirt-chasing mime; a snarky shyster lawyer; and, of course, a fast-talking Italian. In the spirit of satire, “Ukraine” is even more over-the-top than a Marx Brothers’ movie would be, as it crams all the groaners of a 92-minute film into a one-act play.
Director Michael J. Barnes has kept his ship of fools on an even keel. It looks like the Hilberry is starting off on a successful voyage this season.
‘A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine’
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 15, plus Wednesday, Oct. 5. $12-30. 313-577-6798. http://www.wsushows.com