Voltaire wrote that anything too stupid to be spoken can always be sung, and perhaps Lifeline Theatre had that axiom in mind when it chose to turn the novel Queen Lucia into a musical. The first in a series by British humorist E.F. Benson, this 1920 book is about as substantial as your average musical comedy libretto–its tone is arch, its subjects are inconsequential, and its characters are prissy middle-aged children. The Big Themes–birth, love, adultery, death–trouble these big babies not a whit. Instead they expend their energies on garden parties, living room theatricals, and piano recitals. And though sometimes they have spouses, nobody ever seems to grow amorous. Narcissistic and small-minded, these folks become petulant and throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, and as on any playground, the strong tend to boss the weak around.
The triumph of Benson’s novels is not that they amuse–which they do, relying on the well-worn device of deflating the pompous–but that he makes us fond of his frivolous creatures and their little stunts. Tirelessly energetic, insufferably snobbish Emmeline “Lucia” Lucas is at the top of the social hierarchy in the little town of Riseholme and fancies herself solely responsible for its cultural enlightenment. Luckily for her, it’s a small place where everyone is just as intoxicated with Lucia as she is with herself. Most intoxicated of all is her devoted adjutant Georgie Pillson, a fop who fills his days with needlework and piano duets beside his beloved monarch. The novel that Lifeline has adapted also features an opera singer, the genuinely kind and talented Olga Bracely, who moves to Riseholme and starts getting a lot of attention–even from Georgie, who develops a bit of a crush on her, inciting Lucia to war. Lucia and the other inhabitants of Riseholme have an indefatigable, childish zest for life that endears them in spite of their ridiculousness.
Music plays a prominent role in Riseholme, which gives Lifeline composer-lyricist George Howe plenty of opportunities for parody: somber recitatives, operetta-style waltzes. For good measure he throws in jaunty Tin Pan Alley-style numbers, tongue-twisting Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter, even a little jazz. Delightful if derivative, these keep the show floating on air. A few tunes, however, send it thundering to earth. The score’s two or three heartfelt love songs ring false in a world where sincerity has no place. Worse still is Georgie’s self-searching solo late in the evening, “Little Life,” in which he indulges in some unwarranted analysis of his motives for remaining in a backwater. The moment is not only inconsistent with Georgie’s general obliviousness but introduces an unwelcome gravity and even gloom.
Christina Calvit’s script likewise leads Georgie into strange territory a time or two. Though in the book Georgie wonders if his admiration for Olga has turned into love, he would never lose sleep over it. Yet beginning in the second act, Calvit has him not only hung up on the singer but close to turning his various queer signifiers into an outright declaration of homosexuality. If Georgie is conceived as a sexless child, the incompatibility of his effeminacy with a crushlet on Olga doesn’t really matter. But when he’s recast as a gay man, the situation becomes quite a bit trickier. In any event, sexuality in Riseholme is as incongruous as it would be in the Hundred Acre Wood.
Apart from these slight flaws, director Frances Limoncelli’s production is a lovely confection, light, fluffy, and delicious. Elise Kauzlaric’s self-loving, self-dramatizing Lucia preens and chirps and flutters about the stage–until things start to go wrong, when she turns into the nastiest brat you’d ever want to see. Whatever she does, Kauzlaric does with gusto in the show’s most flamboyant role. Georgie is the character with whom the audience most identifies, given his occasional addresses to us, frequent wordless asides, and the fact that he’s essentially the victor’s spoils in the Lucia-Olga war. This places a heavy burden of likability on the actor playing him, but Jamie Axtell’s genial manner, boyish grin, and girlish laugh carry the day. Like so much else in this fizzy production, he thoroughly charms.
When: Through 7/24: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 5:30 PM
Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood
More: Sun 7/10, John Sparks and Albert Williams offer a postshow discussion.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.