By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Calling the current production of the musical Sarah, Plain and Tall a "world premiere" is a stretch. But that's how Dallas Theater Center is promoting its last show of the season, which is also its last new one in the 50-year-old Kalita Humphreys Theater before the move next October into the Wyly Theatre downtown. This Sarah is basically a reworked import featuring the same director, same lead actor and actress, and most of the same songs as the original 2002 production by New York City's Theatreworks/USA.
The difference between the old and new versions is how much they've stretched out this adaptation of the Patricia MacLachlan story, winner of the 1985 Newbery Medal for outstanding children's book. What once was an intermission-less, child-friendly 75 minutes has been padded with additional tunes (at least two of which drag down the pacing) and other filler to two and a half hours (with intermish). Sarah, Plain and Tall now feels more like Long Tall Sally.
For the most part, it's a lovely show—even if it's one of those newfangled musicals that have neither a single dance step nor any standout melodies you'll hum the next day. At its new length, it's simply too long a sit to make it suitable for little kids. And that's too bad, since the comedy is gentle and the relationships chaste enough to qualify as good-hearted G-rated entertainment. There are nice messages in it too, about love, loss, loneliness, unconventional gender roles and what was expected of women out in those little houses on the prairie way back when.
Free-spirited, unmarried Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton (played by Becca Ayers) has to leave her family home in Maine when her brother's persnickety spouse (Kate Loprest) makes it clear she's no longer welcome under their shared roof. Sarah answers a personal ad placed by a lonely Kansas widower, Jacob Witting (Herndon Lackey, who talks and sings like a young Levon Helm). He needs a wife. His children, Caleb (Max Ary, the only Dallas actor in this cast) and Anna (Kate Wetherhead), need a mother. They still mourn for their own who died at Caleb's birth, but they aren't allowed to talk about her with their emotionally shut-down papa.
On a four-week trial run at the Witting farm, Sarah upsets Jacob and Anna by refusing to tame her behavior. She wants to wear overalls and ride the wildest horse. She can't cook, has a tendency to sing loudly (that helps in a musical) and tries to persuade Anna to take a dip in the cattle pond. How Sarah finally wins the heart of Jacob and his offspring is as familiar a musical theater plot as The Sound of Music. At first, she's the crazy lady. By the end she's embracing them all in her big, bony arms.
Directed by Joe Calarco from a book by Julia Jordan, with lyrics by Nell Benjamin and music by Laurence O'Keefe (the same husband-wife team who created Legally Blonde the Musical), this new, improved Sarah features an impressively talented cast, all of whom sing and act superbly. It's also a great-looking show. The scenery by Anna Louizos evokes the weathered planks of old barns and farmhouses, with glimpses of grassy hills against a wide sky of wispy horsetail clouds. Costumer Anne Kennedy has created splendid, multi-textured layers for each character. On pale, red-haired Sarah, those earth-toned skirts and golden blouses give her the glow of a sun-drenched shock of wheat.
If only they'd resisted the urge to make this show bigger and longer while trying to make it better.
As Thousands Cheer is a period piece, a short and charming one, now playing at Lyric Stage in Irving. It's a pastiche of songs by Irving Berlin and comedy sketches by Moss Hart—formidable talents applied to 90 minutes of light commentary aimed at news events in 1933.
The framework is a New York newspaper and its various sections: politics, gossip, weather (reported in the song "Heat Wave"), the "funnies," the "lonely hearts" column and the "rotogravure" (shiny pages of photos of society swells). Each sketch is announced with a headline. In "Joan Crawford to Divorce Douglas Fairbanks Jr.," the Angelina Jolie of the FDR years is announcing to the press her latest marital break-up, only to be interrupted repeatedly by Will Hays, Hollywood's infamous censor. As Joan (played by Shannon J. McGrann) and Doug (Randy Pearlman) bicker over which will get top billing in the headline, Hays (Doug Jackson) arm-twists reporters to put a positive spin on the story. When the stars lean in for a final, passionate smooch for the cameras, Hays reminds them to keep one foot on the floor.
That stuff must have been hilarious in those days.
Lots of celebs are skewered by Hart. John D. Rockefeller Sr. finds out on his 94th birthday that his son has blown $50 million to build Radio City. Multi-marrying Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton gets a going-over. Mahatma Gandhi is wooed by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Stuff like that kept audiences amused for the 400 performances the show enjoyed in its initial run.
This wasn't the first intimate revue to become a Broadway smash (the form had been around since the '20s), but it was the first to give its black cast member, Ethel Waters, equal billing with whites. Racism is raised in the only serious moment in this show, the second act scene titled "Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob." No dialogue, just a solo of the plaintive "Supper Time" (sung beautifully at Lyric Stage by Feleceia Benton). The words tell the story: "Supper time/Kids will soon be yellin'/For their supper time/How'll I keep from tellin'/Them that man o' mine/Ain't comin' home no more?"
Depression-era revues served as precursors of the New Faces shows of the 1950s and, in the way they blended mass-market comedy, political satire, celebrity gossip and popular music, they grandparented TV's later comedy-variety shows, including Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show and TV's longest-running revue, NBC's Saturday Night Live.
A good sense of how this show must have looked and sounded 76 years ago is on the stage in the Lyric production directed by Len Pfluger, with musical direction by Gary Okeson (the sole musician, playing piano for all 11 songs). The performers—Pearlman, McGrann, Jackson, Benton, Diana Sheehan and Brian Patrick Hathaway—are all fine singers, and though there isn't a lot of difficult hoofing, they step lively. Designer Scott Osborne makes his own editorial statement on a set that reproduces giant pages of The New York Times.
Parallels to the current political and economic situation ring out in As Thousands Cheer, more reason to justify Lyric's reviving this rarely seen musical. Now, as then, the stock market is a mess, unemployment is rising and banks are begging for help. We need the laughs as much as, maybe more than those 1930s theatergoers.
Perhaps the biggest dose of nostalgia is this show's reverence for newspapers and all the great stuff readers used to get in their daily rag. Imagine writing a musical revue honoring today's hottest news medium, Twitter. You'd get 140 characters and not one memorable line.