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August 9, 2013

BETTY BLUE EYES’ U.S. Premiere in At Music Theatre of Wichita

“I can give my subscribers one maverick show a season,” says Music Theatre of Wichita producing artistic director Wayne Bryan. “Two could overwhelm them. But they seem to trust me enough to give me leverage to do one.”

It’s a formula that’s worked for Bryan for 26 summers. This season, Bryan’s safe choices were SPAMALOT, LES MIZ, THE KING AND I and MARY POPPINS, all supporting the season theme that “The British Are Coming!” (Well, Anna Leonowens does hail from Britain.) Better still, that theme allowed him to go out on his one-obscure-show limb with BETTY BLUE EYES.

It’s the 2011 musical that got strong reviews in the West End, but lasted only six months. Emmy-winners Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman did the book; the former may be familiar to longtime theatergoers as the author of the much-acclaimed 1968 off-Broadway anti-war drama SUMMERTREE.

The music is by George Stiles and the lyrics by Anthony Drewe, both of whom make my heart beat faster than an overcharged pacemaker. These wizards wrote “Practically Perfect” and made other terrific additions to MARY POPPINS as well as the charming musical HONK! and a new PETER PAN. That last-named sounds superfluous -- until you hear it. Stiles and Drewe made the Lost Boys sound butch and wrote songs for Captain Hook that are not to die for, but to LIVE for.

BETTY BLUE EYES is based on A PRIVATE FUNCTION, the 1984 film with a screenplay by Tony-winner Alan Bennett based on a story he devised with Malcolm Mowbray, who directed. Wichitans, along with all U.S. citizens, could be pardoned if they missed it, for it grossed a little over $2 million in this country. That may explain why the creators didn’t go with the au courant boiler-plate A PRIVATE FUNCTION: THE MUSICAL, but I’d like to think that they wanted to be creative by giving their property a brand-new moniker.

The film introduced me to chiropodist Gilbert Chilvers, his wife Joyce and her Mother Dear who lead a humdrum life in Shepardsford, England in 1947. All wish their meals could contain more meat, but it’s highly rationed so that there will be, as prime minister Clement Atlee says, “fair shares for all.”

Don’t bet on it. Such have-nots as the Chilvers must settle for Spam instead of ham, and they like it as much as we like spam on our computers. Meanwhile, the haves – including three town council members, Dr. Charles Swaby, Francis Lockwood and Henry Allardyce -- eat high on the hog. They’re also hiding a pig which they plan to kill and serve at a private function that will celebrate Princess Elizabeth’s upcoming marriage to Prince Philip.

Gilbert’s yearned to open an office and stop making house calls, and finally finds a nice vacant place on a prominent street. Unfortunately, it’s next door to Dr. Swaby, who sees Gilbert as a toenail-cutting parvenu. You know the British and their class distinctions: Swaby prevents Gilbert from renting the shop. To Joyce, for whom social climbing is her own personal Olympic sport, this is only one additional example of how Gilbert has disappointed her.

But Gilbert knows that Swaby’s been hiding a pig, which Allardyce has fondly dubbed as Betty Blue Eyes. His being spurned spurs him to steal it, after which he plans to kill it and give his family many a feast. Once he gets Betty home, however, his tender heart prevents him from slaughtering her. Joyce views this as one more way he’s disappointed her.

I turned off the film because seeing a pig swilling around in her pigpen – and detailing its bodily functions – was disgusting. I later learned that the film’s end credits even acknowledged a “Bucket Boy.” (As the old joke goes: “What, and give up show business?”)

Ah, but on stage, Betty could be an adorable and fluffy puppet. I made reservations for a Christmas 2011 trip to London, but no sooner had I made non-reversible commitments, BETTY BLUE EUES closed unexpectedly in September. All I got during my London trip was the cast album, which became an immediate favorite that, nearly two years later, still is.

Now I’d see how Wichita would react when Bryan directed the show at his 2,000-seat Century II theater. Truth to tell, attendance wasn’t as strong as I’ve seen there for SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS or ME AND MY GIRL. Still, there were enough in attendance to fill both the Longacre and Circle in the Square (which is more than we can say for the musicals currently playing there).

Bryan’s pre-curtain speech told theatergoers that they were seeing a quintessentially British show in which “p.m.” didn’t refer to time, but to prime minister Atlee. He smartly added that “With all the 4H clubs in Kansas, I think you’ll relate to a story about a pig.” That got an affectionate laugh, followed by some smiles as the overture replicated the sweet sounds of ‘40s British dance bands.

Then came “Fair Shares for All,” an opening number that was a foursquare, stiff-upper-lip march in the spirit of traditional British musicals. It wouldn’t be the one playgoers would go out humming, but Stiles would later give them plenty of take-home tunes.

Many laughed when Gilbert tossed off the line “I just finished scraping a bunion and thought I’d have my lunch” partly because actor Larry Raben said it without any self-awareness. How sensitively he delivered his first song about opening his office; the lovely waltz couldn’t be undermined by Drewe’s mention of hammertoes, fallen arches and (God help us) fungal growth. The playgoers also loved the fanciful moments when people hobbled in to see Gilbert, and after he did little more than pass his hands over their feet, they tour-jetéd their way off stage while smiling broadly.
The house was intently quiet during “Magic Fingers,” a beautiful song in which three of Gilbert’s patients praised his skill. Just as important, however, was the dialogue that the women had between verses. They confided their innermost dreams and fears to Gilbert, who gladly functioned as a sympathetic ear. We liked Gilbert even more when he visited a fourth female patient and spoke only of the woman’s chilblains and calluses after she’d seductively removed her nylons, showed her enticing legs and seductively wiggled her toes. Now we knew that he really loved Joyce.

The crowd gave appreciative I-get-it titters when Gilbert asked the vixen the condition of her corns and she reported “as high as an elephant’s eye.” Yup, Bryan has well taught his audience over the past quarter-century. And when “Magic Fingers” ended, some “Whoos!” erupted. That’s rare for a ballad – but on the other hand, “Magic Fingers” is a rare ballad.

Soon came “Painting by Heart,” another waltz but a most macabre one. Inspector Wormold is the Javert of the meat business. When he finds a merchant dealing unlicensed pork, he delights in slathering it with green paint so that no one can enjoy it. It’s an odd song, but the crowd adored both it and Monte Riegel Wheeler, one of Bryan’s homegrown audience favorites. Expert choreographers Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith made the most of it; think CHICAGO’S “All I Care About” with men with sausage links substituting for showgirls with ostrich feathers.

But as welcomed as “Painting by Heart” was, it didn’t stop the show. That distinction went to the next song: “Nobody,” in which Joyce acknowledged that she wasn’t rich and famous but still believed that she had the goods.

An aside: I adore seeing a lyricist find a triple-rhyme in which each word is spelled differently. Harburg did it in “Necessity” with tennis, Venice and menace; Schwartz achieved it in “Magic to Do” with study, bloody and everybody;
Blitzstein managed it in “Mrs. Mister and Reverend Salvation” with German, vermin and sermon.

Fine. But they did it once in each song. Drewe does it THREE times in the same song:1) smirk, work and circ(les); 2) crème, them and condemn; 3) word, herd and stirred. Other lyricists may say they coulda, woulda, shoulda but they haven’t, have they?

Joyce’s song led to a quick-change fantasy in which she emerged in a glorious gown that got applause even before her 10 tuxedoed boys centered her in a sensational kick line. Here Bryan showed how he goes the extra kilometer: by installing little Christmas-y like lights along the bottoms of four stage portals, and having them go on and off quickly after the number modulated en route to its big finish. Those lights wouldn’t be used again until the curtain calls, so one must sympathize with the interns who spent hours upon hours installing them onto the four arches. But Bryan is a showman who spares no expense to make his musical as bright as possible.

As Joyce, Tracy Lore got the hardest part right. The character’s social climbing could, in a lesser hands, come across as vulgar and worthless. Lore showed that Joyce simply wanted to be all that she could be. What she didn’t know – and what we were pleased to discover – was that Joyce had built-in elegance. How ironic that she wanted to be invited to a private function that was being hosted by people who were vastly inferior to her.

And yet, soon after Joyce convinced us that she really was a superior person, Stiles and Drewe had her do a slower-tempo “Nobody” reprise in which she expressed many self-doubts. Many a theatergoer’s head nodded in understanding. Who hasn’t felt such switch in emotions?

Even villains get to sing in musicals, so the town council members imagined their “Private Function.” The mock-heroic melody full of pseudo-grandeur could have made for some tough listening for this all-American audience. Ah, but Drewe was smart enough at song’s end not just to have the trio mention that Betty would soon be “a fine pork roast,” but that she would be served “with applesauce” in a coda that got a nice generous laugh.

Time to meet the pig, who got the awwwwwws from the crowd because it was just as loveable a pink puppet as I’d predicted. Here the title song revealed that Allardyce had a soft spot for her. The audience giggled its approval as Betty’s head lolled back, forth and kept time with the music. Credit, too, to the always superb Justin Robertson for showing Allardyce’s unbridled love for the unbridled hog, along with his hopes that the next time he saw her that she wouldn’t be on a plate.

Meanwhile, Raben gave that little smile that we all give when we’re aghast at someone’s values but we don’t want to embarrass the person. On a scale from 0-to-100, Raben’s smile registered at a sweet-as-pie 3.1416, but he made it steadily escalate as the song – much better than Richard Rodgers’ “More Than Just a Friend” -- continued all the way to its nice ricky-ticky ragtime ride-out.

So how did Joyce wind up with Gilbert, anyway? We found out in a flashback; during World War II, Joyce went to a dance to find her “Lionheart.” Lore regained Joyce’s youth as the Smiths devised a terrific jitterbug number that would have torn down the house if the writers hadn’t decided to interrupt it with an explosion. Because Gilbert was the volunteer who rescued Joyce, she felt love at first sight.

Actually it was gratitude at first sight, but Joyce wouldn’t see the distinction until after the wedding when she found her husband too milquetoasty. “You promised me a future that would live up to my past,” she reminded him.

But Gilbert became a semi-Sweeney Todd once he was denied his lease. Raben showed the fury of one who realizes the world demands “eat or be eaten.” All his frustrations were mirrored by Shepardsford’s citizens who carried as many placards as found in the Act One closing of EVITA.

So far, so great. Theatergoers applauded warmly and -- more to the point – were smiling and chatting as soon as the lights came up. Part of that came from one of the act’s last lines – when Joyce, proud of Gilbert at last, told him “I think sexual intercourse is in order.” Yeah, many husbands and wives have played that room.

Act Two began with Gilbert lugging in Betty and, mercifully for the audience, taking her off-stage. Thus, we heard a couple of passing-gas incidents (which did make the crowd guffaw) but we didn’t see anything truly gross. But Stiles and Drewe know the power of a great second-act opener, and here’s where they came up with one of their score’s best songs, as Gilbert and Joyce celebrated that the theft was “Another Little Victory” for the common man. It must be, however, the only song in musical theater history in which the singers clamp clothespins on their noses – all the better to avoid Betty’s various aromas. Whether or not a chorus would logically join in the number seemed beside the point, for the Smiths came up with solid choreography that made for a great post-intermission start.

The problem with Betty’s odor resulted in local housewives singing “It’s an Ill Wind.” Stiles provided moody cloak-and-dagger-like music and Drewe made his political commentary at song’s end when the women came to the conclusion that the stink from the Chilvers’ house is simply one found in the “lower classes.”

Of course, none of this would be a problem if Gilbert had simply killed the pig. Joyce enticed him to think of easy ways to do it -- poison, pushing her off the roof, et al. – but Mother Dear overheard the conversation and assumed their intended victim was she.

Here’s where Mary Stout especially shone to the audience’s immense delight. When Bryan learned that Stout would be able to join his cast (straight from off-Broadway’s FAR FROM HEAVEN), he must have danced in glee around his desk for 20 straight minutes. Stout is one of the best in the business in doing double-takes and acting confused, and this role gave her plenty of opportunity to do both, especially in a great production number “Pig No Pig” in which she tried to process what was going on. Stout made the most of her plenty of poor-me scenes, too, and the way that she snarled the word “Spam” wouldn’t have brought joy to anyone at Hormel Foods.

When Gilbert flatly stated that he couldn’t kill Betty, Joyce asked “What kind of man are you” – which led to his singing “What Kind of Man Am I?” a lovely piece in 6/8 that made BETTY BLUE EYES rival A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in waltz variations.

The audience gurgled with pleasure as each person divulged his contribution to the confusion in an ambitious G&S-like finale “Confessions.” It’s one thing that Bryan can stage an entire musical on full-scale sets (excellent ones by Robert A. Kovach) with amazingly detailed costumes (Dixon Reynolds got all the right flowers for women’s hats) – but that he does it in a mere nine days makes one question Annie Sullivan’s right to be called The Miracle Worker. “Confessions” alone should have taken nine days. Just as Joyce, Gilbert and Mother Dear all received invitations to the private function, Bryan must be invited to any confab of the nation’s best directors of musicals.

By the way, Bryan, in his pre-curtain speech, made clear and without any rancor that his audience should let him know if it liked seeing something brand-new or preferred the shows they’d seen time and time again. From the way so many applauded, roared and stood at the end of BETTY BLUE EYES, he might even be encouraged to do two maverick shows a year. Hmmm, next summer, can one be the Stiles-Drewe PETER PAN with Monte Riegel Wheeler as Captain Hook?

         — Peter Filichia

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