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Arts & Entertainment

Golden Oldies

Satisfying nostalgic comedies hit local stages for the holidays.

By Scott Renshaw & Rob Tennant
Posted // June 11,2007 -

You Can’t Take It With You

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Comedy, as a rule, doesn’t age very well. Sure, vintage physical comedy can cross generational lines (see: Keaton, Buster or Stooges, Three). But verbal comedy often depends on surprise, or on breaking boundaries, or operating within a specific cultural context'none of which bodes well for anyone’s grandchildren finding the same things funny that she or he did.

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So it’s particularly impressive to find a 70-year-old “contemporary” comedy like You Can’t Take It With You continuing to work so well'especially compared to labored modern-day copycats like Little Miss Sunshine. George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart created the quintessential oddball family with the Sycamores, a New York City clan generally devoted to pursuing quirky passions. Mother Penelope (Peggy Cosgrave) bangs away at a stack of unfinished plays; her daughter Essie (Brenda Sue Cowley) imagines she’ll be a prima ballerina some day. They’re all chips off the block of Grandpa Martin (Richard Mathews), and beloved by Essie’s relatively traditional sister Alice (Ashley West). Yet, she knows that when she begins dating Tony (Michael Polak), the son of her straight-laced banker boss Mr. Kirby (John LaGioia), the families might not blend particularly smoothly.

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Director Paul Barnes guides Pioneer Theatre Company’s production with a steady hand, creating nice bits of physical business between the snappy lines of dialogue. He finds a tone for his cast that recalls the play’s original era, from the broad physicality of Max Robinson’s Russian dance instructor Kalenkov to the earnest sweetness of Alice and Tony, to the Margaret Dumont reaction takes of Anne Cullimore Decker as Mrs. Kirby. And he manages to navigate deftly around potentially treacherous outdated areas like the job-averse African-American character Donald (Stanley Wayne Mathis) or finding humor in alcoholism.

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But what makes You Can’t Take It With You a pleasure is its genuine enthusiasm for its characters’ eccentricities. Richard Mathews gives reformed workaholic Martin a gentle wisdom, and his third-act speech in defense of a happy life feels as relevant today as it might have during the Great Depression. Kaufman and Hart weren’t out to generate laughs at the expense of a dysfunctional family. They wanted to celebrate a functional family'with a capital “fun.” PTC’s production is as sweet and endearing as it is funny'and it showcases a play that hasn’t dulled with age. 'SR

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White Christmas

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Usually when someone has the great idea to make a Broadway musical out of a beloved film they just add in some songs and chop the original script up a bit. When you’re dealing with something like White Christmas, your job is even easier. It already has songs! And, by Irving Berlin! It’s a slam dunk!

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How surprised I was, then, to see that this recent Broadway hit'based on a 50-year old film and premiering regionally this month at the Egyptian Theatre Company'actually went to the trouble to adapt the classic, rather than simply relocate it to a stage. The plot and major songs are pretty much the same, but the new book by David Ives and Paul Blake gives us characters with more depth and a little more punch than Bing Crosby and the gang delivered back in ’54.

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Oh, sure, all the Broadway signposts are there, guiding you down a road that’s familiar even if you haven’t seen the old movie. There’s Phil and Judy (Jeffery Parsons and Faith Sandburg), who take one look at each other and fall madly in love; they have a great dance number to celebrate. Then there’s Bill and Betty (Justin Ivie and Ginger Bess Simons) who take an instant dislike to each other despite an underlying attraction. Do you think these crazy kids will get together? If they do, do you think it’ll be derailed halfway by a simple misunderstanding, setting the stage for a reconciliation in the second-to-last scene? Hey, don’t ask me; I don’t spoil endings

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The thing is, those things only bother me if the performances aren’t engaging, and this cast kept me in a forgiving mood. The dancing is energetic, the singing top-notch across the board, and the snappy banter pops and crackles as well. The gruff but lovable old General Waverly (Steve Phillips) is even more lovable than his on-screen counterpart. It’s all just enough to make you ignore the unlikely but necessary plot bumps along the way.

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This is all coming from a die-hard Scrooge, mind you. I can’t help it; I used to work retail. However, when the titular number came at the end of the show'with the house lights up halfway and the audience invited to sing along'I found myself ? well, singing along. There was an unfamiliar tingle in my chest, as well. Maybe it was something I ate. Or maybe the Egyptian Theatre Company just puts on a good show. 'RT

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YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU
nPioneer Theatre Company
n300 S. 1400 East
nThrough Dec. 23
n581-6961

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WHITE CHRISTMAS
nEgyptian Theatre Company
n328 Main
nPark City
nThrough Dec. 30
n435-649-9371

 
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