Well before Tom Lehrer, That Was the Week That Was, Laugh-in, the Smothers Brothers, Sonny and Cher and SNL mixed variety show entertainment with political and social commentary to the delight of satire-hungry contemporary audiences, composer/ lyricist Irving Berlin hunkered down with creative writer Moss Hart and came up with a fresh-seeming concept revue requiring a small cast. It was 1933, during the Great Depression. They titled the show they dreamed up As Thousands Cheer. A hit, it ran 400 performances on Broadway, no small feat in hard times.
Lyric Stage possibly chose to mount the production, running through May 9 in the Dupree Theater at the Irving Arts Center, because current economic times seem so déjà vu. It’s an evening of first class, high-energy high jinks and musical numbers that entertain while they gently jab at celebrities and social issues of the day. The pastiche of vignettes consists of sixteen self-contained scenes loosely based on the news, lives and affairs of the rich and famous of the time, including Joan Crawford, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Noel Coward, Josephine Baker, Mahatma Gandhi and Aimee Semple McPherson. The jokes don’t resonate sharply today, out of context; but the era isn’t so far removed that the cognitive gist of their satire gets lost. It’s smart witty, with a wealth of sophisticated double entendres and innuendos. SNL would do well to take notice.
Dancing, singing and creating the celeb send-ups is a well-balanced cast of six regional professional actors who appear to have as much fun performing as the audience does watching them. The ensemble includes Feleicia Benton, Shannon McGrann, Brian Patrick Hathaway, Doug Jackson, Randy Pearlman and Diana Sheehan. All have well-schooled, tuneful singing voices and harmonize excellently; they enliven their characters with style and clarity — singing, dancing or acting. Director Len Pfluger capitalizes on the unique strengths and complimentary attributes of his diverse cast. The show flows smooth and crisp, never missing a beat nor losing momentum due to set or costume changes or unclear characterizations.
The set defines the common theme tying the vignettes together. Each sketch illustrates different New York Times’ headlines projected on a 1930’s style classical arch transom spanned above the playing space. It’s quaintly nostalgic to view the newspaper motif, realizing it was the major means of communication then. Never depressing, not much takes itself too seriously in this production.
Several vignettes elicit the strongest applause during the evening. In Act I, the song Heat Wave illustrates “Heat Wave Hits New York” with sultry tongue-in-cheek aplomb. Diana Sheehan demonstrates what “heat” might mean as a comely weather-caster surrounded by a bevy of admiring lads. The final number of Act I surprises and delights: Easter Parade, featured later as a major movie production number with Judy Garland. In Lyric Stage’s version, Randy Pearlman, as an elderly gent, croons the tune as a gentle love ballad to Shannon McGrann, his frail inamorata seated in a high-backed wheelchair. Pearlman’s well-modulated voice exudes lyrical tenderness and understated sincerity that makes the song sound fresh and new. In Act II, the only truly serious commentary in the show comes in Scene 5. Feleicia Benton sings the heart-wrenching Suppertime below headline “Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob”. She portrays a working class woman preparing dinner for her children while wondering how she’ll explain why their father won’t be coming home. Benton’s smoky tones caress the song with operatic pathos and emotive power. Curious to learn how audiences reacted to this vignette in pre-Civil Rights 1930’s…. This dark scene is followed immediately by the most completely realized and off-the wall send up in the revue: an imaginary British royal family ”coping with excess” under the NY Times headline “Prince of Wales Rumored Engaged.” Doug Jackson as king and Diana Sheehan as queen preside with Monty Python-esque self-congratulatory pomp as a daffy, frumpy royal couple who fail to comprehend their way less than wholesome Prince of Wales son, played with debauched ennui and lecherous eye for the maid (Shannon McGrann) by hyper-kinetic Brian Patrick Hathaway. Delectably shameful display of “naughty, naughty.” Tut, tut.
Gary Okeson accompanies the charming affair with easy mastery on a rich-toned, full-sized grand piano and triumphs as well as production musical director. As Thousands Cheer draws a polite crowd. Thousands may not exactly be cheering, but they certainly clap loud and long as they surge to their feet in approval at the show’s finale. Not a single off-color word uttered on stage all evening.
Final four performances May 7, 8, 9 at 8pm; May 9 at 2:30pm.
For tickets: 972-252-2787, http://www.lyricstage.org
Doug Jackson and Diana Sheehan in Lyric Stage’s AS THOUSANDS CHEER. Photo by James Jamison