Mostly Harmless Theatre Company

at the Body Politic Theatre


Athaneum Theatre Company

The hero of playwright Tom Cone, composer Skip Kennon, and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh’s chamber musical Herringbone wears a suit whose patterned rows sloping in opposite directions suggest the texture and tension of the opposing currents in the character. One side of him is a sweet little all-American boy–George, named after the father of his country no less–who’s shoved into Depression-era show business after winning an Elks Club elocution prize for a patriotic speech. The other side–which in fact comes from the other side–is Frog, the malignant spirit of a dead dancing dwarf who made quite a splat in World War I-era vaudeville. That’s splat, not splash: Frog’s partner, Nathan “Chicken” Moseley, deliberately let Frog fall into the orchestra pit during a show. But when the retired Moseley offers to give little George acting lessons, Frog takes over the kid’s body to seek his murderous revenge.

Interesting premise for a musical comedy. This strange little show, which had its world premiere in 1981 at Chicago’s defunct St. Nicholas Theater before opening (in rewritten form) at the off-Broadway Playwrights Horizons, tries to out-Sondheim Sondheim. With its southern-gothic darkness and wicked humor, it might have come from the pen of short-story writer Davis Grubb or cartoonist Charles Addams, or maybe the early-60s cameras of Roger Corman, William Castle, or Robert Aldrich. Indeed, Herringbone echoes Aldrich’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? as an allegory of good and evil, symbolized by the combination of innocence and ruthless cunning that characterizes show biz–and the American dream of fame and fortune that George’s parents pursue on the strength of their son’s soft-shoe skills.

What makes Herringbone special, though, is the same thing that’s made it difficult to produce. This is a solo showcase for one singer-dancer-actor, who not only portrays Frog and George fighting for control of the same body but also plays the grown-up Herringbone recalling his boyhood. In addition he’s required to slip with lightning speed in and out of numerous other roles, including his macho father and fluttery mother, the Confederate-courtly Moseley, a fake-French tailor, and an archetypal woman of easy virtue named Dot. Furthermore, the actor who plays Herringbone must be able to sing and dance in an elegant vaudevillian style and to convey dramatic complexity at the same time. And by the way, he has to be able to work past the material’s main shortcoming–a first act that relies on shtick and stereotype and takes far too much time getting to the point, then breaks for an annoyingly intrusive intermission.

The Mostly Harmless Theatre Company’s revival features Brian Stepanek in the lead role, originally performed by David Rounds. Stepanek is far too young and callow to suggest a ripened showman reflecting on his bizarre apprenticeship, but the kid can move and sing, and his handling of the dialogue between George and Frog occasionally strikes the right note of creepy-comic shiveriness. But only occasionally; more often his workmanlike performance turns Herringbone from a virtuoso vehicle to a competent exercise. Stepanek previously played Herringbone in Syracuse, where he went to Syracuse University–as did set designer Holly Beck (who uses shabby red curtains draped over a flat to suggest the world of vaudeville), costume designer Melissa Wayne, and lighting designer Leslie Brumlik (who underscores a few key moments with some interesting tableaux); director Kerro Knox 3 taught there. (The whole production has a college-show feel; I’d give it an “A” for effort.) Adequate musical accompaniment is provided by Linda Tybik, who’s underutilized in the potentially interesting part of pianist Thumbs Dubois.

Tybik is also musical director for Athenaeum Theatre Company’s Fiddler on the Roof, and while the band she’s organized for the show (conducted by pianist Lex McCauley) is a bit skimpy, she’s assembled a company of uncommonly good singers who bring an almost operatic richness to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s tuneful Broadway-Hebraic score. If only the cast could just stand and sing. Unfortunately, they have to act and dance as well.

The result, at least at last week’s opening night, was a sluggish production that came nowhere near the intense emotion that can permeate this portrait of a man and his society both facing cataclysmic change. Joseph Stein’s script, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, has plenty of fool-proof comedy, and much of that comes through here; Jerry O’Boyle as Tevye, the poor milkman trying to cope with his daughters’ rebelliousness, until a czarist pogrom makes matters moot, has some nice, slyly humorous moments in the first act–his meeting with the butcher Lazar Wolf (amusingly whiny Todd Yearton) to bargain away his daughter’s hand in marriage is quite funny. But the second act, when Tevye and his fellow Jews are forced to leave their ancestral home and the story slips into heartbreaking tragedy, is dramatically numb. None of the actors have the resources to convey their characters’ pain–and director Steven Fedourk seems preoccupied with trying (not very effectively) to keep the traffic flowing. Still, Fiddler fanatics should enjoy the rich vocalizing of Kate Murray as Tevye’s wife Golde and Heidi Landis and Heidi Meyer as his daughters Tzeitel and Hodel: their songs remain models of musical-theater writing, conveying vivid character as well as memorable melody.