Musical Repertorie Theatre

at Kiku’s

I had misgivings about The Drunkard. Originally a 19th-century temperance-movement melodrama, it was revised in the 1970s with songs by the not-yet-famous Barry Manilow. I suspected that the adaptation’s reason for being would be to spoof melodramatic conventions–the damsel in distress, the villain who wears a cape, the handsome hero who saves the day, and their out-of-date poses and gestures. On the other hand, genuine melodrama is so dead that attempts to revive it can be seen as acts of cutting-edge courage.

The adapted Drunkard does have stock melodramatic characters and situations. A villain with a cape leads a college man down the “liquid highway to sin and perdition,” making the college man a drunkard and his deserted wife a damsel in distress. When the villain is about to beat the damsel with his cane, the hero, who is the drunkard’s foster brother, comes to the rescue. The story stops when the college man is saved from irredeemable dissipation by the Salvation Army.

This adaptation’s main contributions are the many, mostly pleasing tunes (though they are usually marred by stupid lyrics) and the silly puns (the damsel addresses her daughter Julia by saying “Julia, child”). Director Ben Tweel encourages the playing out of unfunny puns–when the damsel says she needs support, the actress playing her lifts her breasts with her hands. The one double entendre Tweel doesn’t underline is “grass”: when one character, referring to the solace she finds in parks, repeatedly sings “Grass is better for you than wine” she doesn’t mime smoking a joint, though the adapters probably intended her to.

This adaptation also adds a character named Carrie A. Nation, a real-life hero of the temperance movement who made a career of single-handedly destroying taverns with rocks, bricks, hatchets, and brute strength–she was six feet tall and reportedly could rip cash registers out and heave them across a room. Unfortunately, The Drunkard’s Nation is a mere Bible thumper. She implores a crowd of barflies to stop drinking, warns that they are losing their souls, and gets shouted down. It’s an inaccurate, unamusing caricature–still, the scene works in a way the temperance movement would approve of; the barflies are dangerous maniacs who stomp, shout, and bully with convincing wrath, giving testimony to the diabolical nature of alcohol.

Though the material is misconceived, Musical Repertorie Theatre’s production has many enjoyable moments. Most of the tunes–including a showstopper with five interlocking parts–create a nice turn-of-the-century flavor. The cast sings well, under the musical direction of Susanah Kist and with her excellent piano accompaniment. Unfortunately, the songs, however sweetly sung, are often undermined by lyrics such as “Peace and love and good and nice and motherhood and apple pie.”

The best thing about the show is that most of the actors play the melodrama straight. The standard poses of melodrama can be campy, but when played unironically they can make scenes more compelling. Not having to worry about making their characters more than stock personalities frees actors to use distilled emotional forces. So that when a character feels ambivalence–for example, sexual desire as well as fear of betrayal–the two feelings don’t have to be simultaneous and therefore don’t compromise each other. The two undiluted feelings can alternate, often rapidly and without transition. The pure emotions and the speed of their shifts can make melodramatic acting thrilling.

Karen Hough’s damsel stands out: her emotions are convincing and her speedy, clean shifts are technically impressive. Sharon Daw in several roles and Dean Burklund as the title character also give convincing performances, and Tad Janes’s Salvation Army leader has an overboard zeal that gives an edge to an otherwise false though musically rousing happy ending.

Ben Tweel’s direction keeps the actors moving smoothly through all of Kiku’s small back-room space–onstage and between the tables. The night I was there he generously provided the audience with peanuts and bravely encouraged us to throw them. The cast dealt with the frequent interruptions very well, never dropping character or losing their wits. The mean quips of one inebriated patron gave further testimony to the evils of drink, but no one seemed to mind.