A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine
October 6, 2011
The Rogue in Hilberry Theatre, Reviews, musicals

The danger in presenting a double bill is that the format encourages comparison of one half with another. This is borne out in a big way in the Hilberry Theatre production of A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh; music by Frank Lazarus): as directed by Michael J. Barnes, the show’s second half is a madcap comedy that plays to the performers’ strengths. There’s also an hour of song and dance.

The greater of the two is A Night in the Ukraine, the second act. An homage to the Marx Brothers’ comedy legacy in film, the story takes Chekhov’s The Bear and, to no one’s surprise, runs roughshod over it. The supporting performances are notable, in particular the young Nina (Danielle Cochrane) and Constantine (Alec Barbour), who fall in love at first sight, suffer a divisive misunderstanding, and reconcile in record time and without a smidgen of awareness of their staggering cliché. Loreli Sturm’s Mrs. Pavlenko is a willing, padding-stuffed butt of jokes by characters more wily than she — which is most of them. However, the starring Marx approximators deserve the greatest accolades: Dave Toomey is a steadfast lost-in-translation Gino; unmistakably greasepainted Andrew Papa puts his own wisecracking spin on the exhausting semantic gymnastics of Serge B. Samovar; and Carollette Phillips excels without uttering a syllable as the intent, obfuscating, hilariously vacant-faced Carlo. Moments of lull stand out only because the pacing generally gambols, and the combination of word play and physical/visual spectacle keeps the comedy rolling through a deliberately unimportant and improbable plot.

It’s a shame, then, that the second act is preceded by the inferior A Day in Hollywood, a star-struck musical revue that imagines the same players as ambitious ushers at the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (the one with hand- and footprints in the cement). Dressed all alike, with rare and fleeting opportunities for anything resembling character development, the players sing and dance about the golden age of motion pictures through plastered-on smiles. The original songs don’t hold a candle to the licensed numbers; the audience is asked to identify with dancers shown only from the knees down on a raised platform that serves as gimmick central. Music director Jeremy Ryan Mossman joins the cast as both ensemble member and onstage primary accompanist, and the vocal performances are unremarkably thin and clear. Choreography by Jill Dion fares somewhat better, never more so than in an energetic and thundering tap number in which the players recite the ultra-prudish Motion Picture Production Code. As no-content fluff goes, the show is passable and inoffensive; as an educational component in a graduate program for acting, the absolute superficiality of it feels like an opportunity squandered.

Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s scenic design bridges the two halves of the production with Transformers ingenuity and a busy extravagance charmingly beset by backdrops and other shortcuts of the craft. John D. Woodland’s costume design suffers from having to fit one silhouette onto ten different bodies in the first act, but finds a hodgepodge kitchen-sink groove in the second that suits the hasty, broad comedy and assembly-line filmmaking it emulates. Rather than give over to cinematic excesses, lighting and sound designers Thomas H. Schraeder and Becky Garcia, respectively, hold back from overwhelming the production and ensure that this remains first and foremost a stage play.

The trouble with A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine seems to be a matter of fit. Viewers eager to revisit another era of entertainment will have little to argue with in the wall-to-wall sounds and outrageous jokes of the script, yet this particular product is only so-so. The show’s first half is an especially limp offering for a classical repertory theater company; moreover, it highlights the importance of absolutely stunning voice and movement to the success of this kind of production, neither of which is ultimately reached here. The companion piece is certainly better and a showcase for exceptional work by Papa, Phillips, and Toomey, but in aggregate, one decent tribute must use all its goodwill to overcome the washout of a floor show weighing it down.

A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine is no longer playing.
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