It Came from Tin Pan Alley
For my tastes, the best show in town this humid summer is the weekly, impromptu parade of lowriders, muscle cars, and vintage automobiles that strut up and down University Avenue for most of the night every Saturday. And I'm not alone: The Midway is lined with folding chairs tonight, as hundreds of die-hard traffic watchers peer into the streets, sip great quantities of soft drinks, and wave to passing motorists. Everybody loves a parade, and the only thing missing tonight is a brass band marching down the center lane, oom-pah-pahing through some sentimental Tin Pan Alley melody about lovers meeting in the swelter of June.
No such band exists, of course, but no matter, as I am on my way to the Park Square Theatre, and those old melodies are creeping out of the auditorium, and that'll do. It's the charmingly tinny voice of Cliff Edwards, in fact, also known as Ukulele Ike, and he is eefing, his word for scatting in a high falsetto. It's not Ukulele Ike in person, alas--just canned pre-show music--but, again, that'll do.
The Park Square is mounting June Moon by Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman, a play set in the world of Tin Pan Alley song hacks, and it's a familiar story to anybody who has every hummed "Magnolia" in the sweltering dusk. Specifically: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then boy writes hit song and is trapped into marriage by a gold-digging vamp. Boop boop be-doop.
The Park Square, particularly under the direction of Peter Moore, has a talent for period comedies, and this is a charmer. The Boy in question, as played by Jeffrey Cloninger, is a bow-tie and sweater-vest-bedecked rube with an eager face and a pocket filled with mawkish song lyrics. We first meet him on a train ride to New York, where he has set out to make his fortune. Along the way, he makes awkward, self-important conversation with a dentist's assistant--the Girl in question. This is Sara Marsh, a tiny slip of a thing with exaggerated, bashful mannerisms. When complimented, she curls away from her admirer in an elongated s-shape, one shoulder rising, her eyes cast so far downward that her head appears to plummet to the floor.
Marsh's unforced gesturing has company--this is a production of meaningful eye rolls, arched eyebrows, and fretful weight shifting, mostly from the play's two other female leads. Here we have the Gold-digging Vamp in question and her Frustrated Sister, played by Carolyn Pool and Virginia S. Burke, respectively. Pool is in this production, and is always in Park Square period comedies, undoubtedly in part because she looks as though she accidentally tumbled off the screen of a Fatty Arbuckle silent short. She plays her vamp without virtue of psychological depth here--all surface greed and selfishness--and she's right to, as this is how Lardner and Kaufman wrote the character, and it's the funnier choice.
Save the hand-wringing for Burke, who plays the wife of a slowly failing songwriter (Steve Sweere), and who is awfully sick of being poor. Burke was easily the best thing about the last large Kaufman production in the Twin Cities, last season's Once in a Lifetime at the Guthrie, where she played an increasingly unnerved receptionist, spinning a complex narrative thread merely by widening her eyes at the proper moment. She widens those same eyes at her husband in this play, and tells a different story, one of thwarted desires and frustrated ambitions. When she is onstage, the play suddenly seems to be about her, and as her marriage plummets toward catastrophe her story is a sadder one than the light romantic comedy we came to see. But it's a story worth telling, and tonight it'll do.
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