Grapevine groovy: Under the Yum Yum Tree

1960 was a banner year for spectacular Broadway shows with stars at the top of their game. Camelot opened, with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. Bye Bye Birdie brought a first rock n roll score to Broadway musicals. The Sound of Music, featuring Mary Martin, won the Best Musical Tony. The Fantasticks thrilled off Broadway audiences. A genteel, idealized sense of romance dominated the stage. Lawrence Roman’s bedroom farce Under the Yum Yum Tree, which ran for 173 performances on Broadway starting in late 1960, featuring Dean Jones and Gig Young, offered something fresh and different.

 Jill Ethridge, Keith Warren (seated), Shane Strawbridge

Jill Ethridge, Keith Warren (seated), Shane Strawbridge

Roman’s rather explicit and frank treatment of the emerging sexual mores of the era—“shacking up” and openly “free love”—may have offended some, but it ushered in a new paradigm for American comedy. The New York Times review praised the show, saying Mr. Roman had “a gift for keeping the dialogue lively”. This saucy, slightly dated romance still comes off lively and entertaining, viewing its opening night production at Grapevine’s Runway Theatre. The almost full house buzzed with merry anticipation before the lights came up; the audience chuckled, guffawed and sighed in delight as the scenes unfolded. Rabin and Column award winning Director Chris Robinson assembled a visually appealing cast of recognizable types with well-defined comic skills.  The “big” role in the play (played by a disgusted and resentful Jack Lemmon in the 1963 movie version) is that of a lecherous San Francisco landlord named Hogan and requires an actor who can tread the fine line between predatory opportunism and teddy bear vulnerability. Hogan appeals to and seduces a parade of ladies who rent apartments from him, using a carefully assembled bag of hackneyed tricks, predictable macho attire (including a garish, diabolical red suit) and what he clearly considers playboy charm with a much practiced boyish grin. He makes a continuously overbearing pest and fool of himself. Yet he exudes a sort of naïve cuddliness that allows him to gain entry to lots of pre-AIDS concerned boudoirs and makes him, almost unbelievably, a genuine sympathetic character.

It feels as though the role was written for regional comic talent Shane Strawbridge who bounds into it with delicious abandon. He balances both sides of his over the top character like a master juggler, using impeccably delivered comic timing and irrepressible positive energy. The audience can hardly wait to see what sort of new ‘attack’ he launches each time he sneaks or bursts onstage, into the apartment of one of his former conquests. Said former conquest, Irene, re-emerges and manages to inadvertently rekindle passionate flames as a sultry subtext to the main romantic plot. In a role that would look perfectly suited to a youngish Ann Bancroft, director Robinson has cast statuesque, glamorous blonde Staci Cook. Her glare could turn lesser men than Hogan to stone; her voice would command order from a division of randy Marines after a six months assignment on a deserted island. Tossing off pre-women’s lib one-liners like yesterday’s cigarette ashes, she creates the perfect match for Strawbridge’s Hogan and is equally relentless in her narcissistic invasion of the other two characters’ private lives. Local actress Jill Etheridge, pixie and vivacious to the point of hyperactivity, plays the show’s ingénue, Robin. With foreshadowing of the commitment-phobic 70’s, she debates marrying her honorable, devoted, handsome boyfriend. Maybe she should just live with him? And no sex…she’s a proper young lady, after all. As the sole ‘straight’ character in the show, regional leading man Keith Warren cuts a dashingly Cary Grant-wholesome picture as clean cut junior executive Dave trying to repress his natural desires while accommodating his insecure girlfriend’s unreasonable wishes. With the wildly randy behavior erupting around him and Hogan’s non-stop determination to offer him unwelcome ‘conquest advice’, Warren’s Dave struggles valiantly to take control of the situation with hilarious result. Warren’s “adult” delivery and droll expression works well in contrast to Strawbridge’s camped up, juvenile-acting Hogan and makes the romantic pursuit of his scatterbrained ingénue girlfriend really fun to watch. The 60’s costumes are perfect in detail and pastel color scheme (designed by Patsy Daussat). The multi-level chic San Francisco high rise flat makes an ideal playground for the sex-crazed foursome (Dennis Canright design with props by Ryan Mathieu Smith); and the 60’s romantic ballads as background sound provide an ideal torchy ambience (Wendy Bowman).

Feeling nostalgic and a trifle risqué? Under the Yum Yum Tree is the groovy scene to make. Dine out in downtown Grapevine before the show at one of its varied, sophisticated options— it’s a perfect date evening that could lead to…whoever knows what later on?
Under the Yum Yum Tree runs through June 7 at 8:00PM Fridays and Saturdays, 3:00PM on Sundays.
Runway Theatre
215 North Dooley Street
Grapevine, Texas 76051
(817) 488-4842
http://www.runwaytheatre.com

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