Theatre at St. Clements - Sept. 14, 2000
Reviewed by John Kenrick
It was an intriguing idea: a fully-staged production of Bloomer Girl, a once-acclaimed Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg musical that has been rarely seen since 1944. Unlike other "forgotten" musicals, this one had a plot that hinged on a costuming issue -- women of the 1860's deciding between hoopskirts or the scandalous liberation of pants-like bloomers. As a result, a concert staging would not make visual sense. So Cotton Blossom Productions, a new group who's dedication to reviving socially conscious musicals led to a well-received staging of Flahooley last year, stretched its resources to the max and brought Bloomer Girl back in a small but ambitious Off-Broadway production.
As one of many who only knew the show through the original cast recording, I was fascinated to see how the songs fit into the action. Evalina, the daughter of a hoop skirt manufacturer, is torn between her aunt's fight for women's rights and her fathers plans to have her marry a Southern business associate. Although Jeff is the kind of womanizing rake Evalina despises, she swiftly falls in love with him. However, her passion for women's rights and a family dispute over freeing a runaway slave adds to the turmoil. When a controversial stage version of Uncle Tom's Cabin brings matters to a crisis, word comes that Fort Sumter has been fired on. As the men prepare for war, Evalina and Jeff are united -- he will be fighting on the Union side, and his slave has been freed.
Bloomer Girl was originally hailed as one of the first shows to follow Oklahoma's lead. While the plot is trivial, it is no worse than worrying whether a farm girl goes to a dance with a cowboy or a hired hand. But Oklahoma created a stage full of three dimensional characters who's fates genuinely matter to audiences -- Bloomer Girl offers old-style caricatures that one is hard pressed to care about. Some of these characters are so sexist or racist that you would hate them if they weren't so ridiculous. The one exception is the runaway slave, whose hunger for freedom grabs our attention despite his brief time on stage.
In all fairness, even a whiff of feminist attitude was a daring thing back in 1944. This script defeats all that by having the heroine fall madly in love with a man she knows is a cad, but there was no way audiences of that period would deal with anything other than a "boy gets girl" musical. While one could complain that Bloomer Girl's writing has not aged well, it is reassuring to see that our society has grown up a bit in the last half century.
Aside from a lack of compelling characters, most of the score is surprisingly uninspired. The exceptions are the passionate ballad "Right as Rain," and the two joyous songs for the runaway slave -- "Eagle and Me" and "I Got a Song." This production also made "It Was Good Enough for Grandma" an amusing rouser, but far too many songs seemed like they had been written to meet some sort of quota. This is not Arlen & Harburg (the Wizard of Oz team) at their best.
This was an Equity approved "showcase," which means that the union allowed members to appear with aspiring amateurs. Such showcases must abide by strict budget guidelines, which usually means limited rehearsal time. Although this cast has some genuinely talented performers, the unusual physical demands of a show that includes hoop skirts and an Agnes DeMille ballet left little time for anyone to work out the finer points of the material. However, no amount of polish could have made much of this material. This cast battled on against the odds with such determination that the finale of each act had the requisite tug one expects from a "golden age" musical -- not a small thing.
Meghan Maguire and Goeff Sullivan made an attractive couple as the romantic leads, and Maryellen Conroy gave the eccentric Aunt Dolly Bloomer just the right serio-comic edge. Tonianne Robinson was an ensemble standout, giving her dialogue a much needed shot of wit. Special kudos to James E. Crochet's costume designs, which included some exquisite period gowns which the cast handled with assurance -- and a colorful parade of bloomers.
As a rabid musical theatre buff -- and there are supposedly a few thousand of us still stumbling around -- I appreciated this once in a half-century chance to see Bloomer Girl on its feet. My hat is off to anyone who would take a chance on this forgotten material.
One parting note to producers everywhere: For pity's sake, do not produce costume musicals in summertime unless you have air-conditioned or outdoor facilities. A sweltering audience can not give performers their due. St. Clement's is a charming space, but not when I'm literally dripping with perspiration. I can only imagine what the cast went through in all those multi-layer costumes! (Actually, I once appeared in Camelot during a heat wave, so I know exactly how they felt!) When budgets are tight, it's best to schedule such shows for the cooler months. Everyone in the house will thank you.