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Manhattan Madcaps of 1924

Symphony Space, New York City - July 2006

Review by John Kenrick

The folks at Symphony Space, under the dedicated direction of Isaiah Sheffer, do a dandy job of keeping live performances of all kinds blooming on the Upper West Side, and their latest idea is a promising one -- to give the big city a taste of the simple fun found in regional summer stock performances. The first entry in this new series proves that the project has merit, even though the show in question is something of an amiable stumble.

Manhattan Madcaps of 1924 collects a small mountain of old school musical comedy clich├ęs and labels it a libretto, all as an excuse to present twenty three songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Most of the tunes are lesser knowns like the "Stonewall Moskowitz March," but a few evergreen hits like "Manhattan" are slipped in. Frankly, they would have been better off sticking to the songs. As it is, Isaiah Sheffer's script (written under the pen name "Jerzey Turnpike") is an embarrassment, albeit a good natured one. Two couples come from "way out West" to make their fortunes in 1924 New York, where they meet two more couples already here attempting the same. The four duos all break up over silly misunderstandings at exactly the same time, and all happily resolve their non-problems just in time for the finale.

Such fluff could be justified by the accompanying cornucopia of Rodgers & Hart songs -- which happily includes all the alternate versions of "Blue Moon" that Larry Hart churned out before he crafted the final standard version. However, despite generous doses of fresh-faced goodwill, the cast is very much the sort of mixed bag one finds in a typical summer stock company. Ivy Austin is a standout as a struggling chorus girl, with the strongest pipes and surest comic timing in the bunch. Her cohorts have a harder time rising above the one dimensional characters, and the equally flat stage direction by Annette Jones.

No one could top the expert musical direction and arrangements by Lanny Myers, who couches the unamplified singers in a warm pillow of intimate orchestral sound that is period perfect for these songs. Ryan Scott's simple but handsome art deco unit set, expertly lit by Brian Aidous, is the perfect backdrop for Madeline Cohen's idiomatic period costumes. Regina Larkin's choreography is minimal, but includes one or two interesting effects.

At ninety minutes (yet another entry in the "who needs an intermission?" sweepstakes), Manhattan Madcaps of 1924 is sweet but disappointing. One hopes Symphony Space can come up with better ideas for this series in summers to come.

Manhattan Madcaps closed July 23, 2006.

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