Musical Minimalism

Michelle Hensley takes a bit of Broadway to the workhouse

Who else watched the Tony Awards this past Sunday? The news is awash with stories of a new era of Broadway, thanks mostly to the success of The Producers, which is something of an old-school runaway hit. Stories are creeping out of New York of desperate theatergoers offering to trade sexual favors in exchange for impossible-to-get seats at the St. James Theatre.

Indeed, the 12 Tonys The Producers garnered might be the biggest sexual favor of all, made literal by Dame Edna Everage presenting the Best Actor in a Musical award to Nathan Lane with the Tony statuette squeezed between her thighs, the second phallic salute of the evening (the first having occurred when the cast of The Full Monty offered the audience a full monty of its own, rendered in silhouette for the home audience by a sudden blinding flash of backlights).

Well, forgive me if another season of tepid revivals (Bells Are Ringing, Follies), overblown musical adaptations of the books I was forced to read in junior high school (Jane Eyre, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), and movies-turned-all-singing, all-dancing revues (The Producers, 42nd Street) seems very much business as usual to me.

Sexual favors not required: Stephen D'Ambrose and Aimee Bryant in The Most Happy Fella
Sexual favors not required: Stephen D'Ambrose and Aimee Bryant in The Most Happy Fella

Indeed, the acceptance speeches, quickly interrupted by swelling music (oh for the days of vaudeville, when an overly verbose performer was simply whisked off the stage with a hooked pole), sounded like something scripted circa 1943: I'm just a kid from the Upper West Side who had a dream to be a hoofer on the Great White Way, and how glad I am that I could tap-dance my way into your hearts.

To hell with it. I love a good musical, but I'm not going to dish out a hundred simoleons to see one. Fortunately, a sweetheart of a Broadway musical is currently in town, and all I had to do to see it was go to jail. Specifically, the production is Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, here produced by Ten Thousand Things, and the jail was the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility in Plymouth. The men's section of the workhouse is a suitably imposing concrete structure built to house 395, the sort of building in which the cast of Fella, lugging minimal props and costumes on several dollies, had to pass through three separate sets of barred, electronically locked doors before entering the jail, at which point they were ushered to a small whitewashed gymnasium where a few doleful inmates in tattered, pajama-like cotton uniforms were already setting up mats on the floor. "I can never get chairs when we come here," director Michelle Hensley explained. Previous productions at the facility lacked even the floor mats, forcing 60-plus prisoners to enjoy their theater while seated on the polished hardwood floor.

The acoustics of the room were terrible, of course, it being built for the sounds of basketballs hitting backboards and the squeak of rubber-soled shoes against the floor, and not for artfully phrased and harmonized expository songs. But complaining about acoustics is rather beside the point with Ten Thousand Things productions, which has built a complex aesthetic out of making do. Even if they did not play to prisons and homeless shelters, I would find Ten Thousand Things productions fascinating, particularly under the direction of Hensley. It is theater stripped down to its armature, and Hensley has a talent for taking a play, tossing out all the guff and filigree that fattened it into a bloated Broadway success, and finding the sparest human core of the story.

Fella, for example, is a straightforward romance, the sort of joyous fluff that Broadway used to churn out effortlessly every season and was usually pretty bad. But Frank Loesser had a talent for splashing broad emotions and sly comedy onto the stage, and an inventive ear for music (he was also responsible for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Guys and Dolls, the latter of which is, for this critic's money, the last great American musical). Fella tells of a postal romance between an aging Napa Valley vineyard owner and a San Francisco waitress, and involves the usual comical confusions before the best instincts of the characters assert themselves and they give themselves over to love.

The production benefits from Hensley's minimal staging. For example, the musical's one pop success, the song "Watching All The Girls Go By," is performed very nearly as a street-corner doo-wop number by Esera Tuaolo, a former Vikings defense tackle with a sweet voice and an abundance of gospel phrasings. Tuaolo is a huge man with tattooed arms as thick as tree trunks, and he leans back on the stage with a tiny straw cowboy hat perched on his head, with performers half his size providing harmony as he sings "You can't go to jail for what you're thinkin'." A single cast member, Vera Mariner, passes repeatedly in front of the men, changing hats each time while they eye her hungrily.

In the lead roles are Stephen D'Ambrose and Aimee K. Bryant, and, stripped of the overly elaborate didos and pratfalls that make up most Broadway musicals, the troubled romance between the two is charming. They sing to each other in broken English, earnest but artless phrases of mutual adoration, backed only by a cello and an accordion, their mismatched voices filling the prison gymnasium and echoing back like the peals of a bell. The inmates sat quietly on the floor mats, utterly absorbed, and it was a moment that couldn't be sweetened, even with the addition of canned laugh track.

 
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