Plain and Fancy
York Theatre Company - October 2006
Article by John Kenrick
Have you ever dug through a closet or drawer and suddenly found a really great piece of clothing you had completely forgotten about? You wonder why you haven't worn it more often, and promptly restore it to regular use, responding to the inevitable compliments by saying, "What, this old thing?" -- as you silently make a note to wear it far more often in the future.
Well, such is the case with Plain and Fancy, a 1955 hit which ran for 461 profitable performances on Broadway and became a staple in the amateur theatre repertory. Unfortunately, there was no big screen version, and the show gradually fell into disuse. The York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti Concert Series has uncovered a number of needlessly forgotten gems over the last twelve years, presenting more titles than any other theatrical concert series in the world. Their 2006 staging of Plain and Fancy provides proof positive that this show is as charming and relevant as ever, and leaves one wondering how such a delightful property ever slipped out of the spotlight.
Dan King has inherited a Pennsylvania farm, and travels with longtime friend Ruth Winters to look over the property and consider a neighboring Amish farmer's offer to buy the property. Sophisticated or "fancy" New Yorkers, Dan and Ruth are alien creatures among the "plain" Amish, who have ignored cultural change and clung to their own ways for more than two centuries. But the Amish have their full share of romantic intrigues, what with one innocent farm girl falling for the worldly Dan, while another is forced to marry the boring brother of the young man she really loves. Of course, all ends up happily -- this is a 1950s musical comedy after all! But along the way, the clash of cultures and mindsets has much to teach, and offers many opportunities for satisfying entertainment.
Director David Glenn Armstrong keeps the action clear throughout, and John Bell provides solid support at the solo piano, but in an initimate concert staging, the material must speak for its itself -- and oh my, how eloquent this material is. Some have suggested that Plain and Fancy is somewhere between Fiddler on the Roof and Oklahoma, but the spirit here is far too unique to classify so easily. The libretto by Will Glickman and Joseph Stein is packed with interesting characters and comic possibilities. With music by Albert Hague and lyrics by Arnold Horwitt, the score is vintage Broadway -- not a wasted note or word, and every number is a winner.
Anyone who has ever gotten lost on a country road will identify with the confusing directions offered to the bewildered New Yorkers by locals in "You Can't Miss It." The show's hit ballad "Young and Foolish" is still a winner, as are the sweet "It Wonders Me" and the soaring "This is All Very New to Me." Ruth gets the acerbic "Helluva Way to Run a Love Affair," and the Amish farmers get the gorgeous "Plain We Live." There is a kickin' Act Two opener for the ensemble, "How Do You Raise a Barn," which was, by necessity, simplified for the Mufti concert staging, but still very effective. Left out entirely was a ballet sequence set at a local carnival -- the show still works quite smoothly without it, but it would doubtless add a lot of color to fully staged productions.
The York put this fine material in the hands of a stellar cast. Standouts include the sensational Cady Huffman (the original Ulla in The Producers), who makes every line (verbal and physical!) count as Ruth, who longs for the comforts of the modern world. Jordan Leeds is excellent as the often bemused Dan, and the magical Nancy Anderson damn near steals the show as Hilda, the Amish girl who develops a crush on him. I have cheered Ms. Anderson's performances everywhere from Broadway to London to Carnegie Hall -- she is truly one of the theatrical treasures of our time.
Erik Devine makes the gruff Papa Yoder hard to hate, and his glorious voice bass baritone makes "Plain We Live" a highlight. Dan Sharkey is hilarious as the dim-witted farmer Ezra, and Jack Noseworthy is endearing as his hot tempered but loving brother. The surprise find of this cast is Sara DeLaney, whose enchanting performance as the romantically entangled Katie simply wowed the York's opening night audience. Here's hoping we see and hear far, far more of her on New York stages in the future.
And then there's that living comic treasure, Charlotte Rae. Bringing a lifetime of stage and television experience to her performance as matriarch Emma Yoder, she gives a master class in how one turns giggles into belly laughs. This little lady is still a powerhouse, and it is one of the joys of a theatre-going lifetime to see her in action again. You GO, girl!
If your amateur group is looking for a quality, family-friendly show that has not been done to death, Plan and Fancy is ready and waiting to delight audiences. It has been some forty years since it was regularly performed, and that is four decades too many. Dig this one out of the drawer and try it on!