Red, Hot and Blue

Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ

October 26, 2001

Review by John Kenrick

Well, I guess it all depends on what you're into. Top pros Debbie Gravitte and Jim Walton singing the heck out of a dozen or so Cole Porter songs while master comic Bruce Adler dishes out some classic shtick? Now that's my idea of a party!

Paper Mill's colorful revival of Red, Hot and Blue show us exactly what 1930's musical comedy was all about. Keep in mind that these shows had disjointed books that relied on zany, pun-loving gags to get from one song to another. With the exception of Anything Goes, most of Broadway's lighthearted Depression-era musicals are justifiably considered unrevivable today. An example of the dialogue will give you some sense of what's involved –

Prisoner: Don't be so hoity-toity!
Debutante: She may be hoity, but she'll never see toity again.

If you get this old burlesque joke, and can handle it – and I sure can – Red, Hot and Blue offers lots of wacky fun. If you prefer your musicals a trifle more refined, fear not – Paper Mill is offering King and I and My Fair Lady in the Spring. For my money, some airy Red, Hot and Blue silliness makes a great antidote to the nightmares reality is heaping on us these days.

The plot puts the "con" in convoluted. Nails Duquesne, a onetime manicurist who lucked into millionaire widowhood, sets up a national lottery to raise money for a foundation assisting ex-convicts. As incentive, she also launches a nationwide search for the long-lost girl her attorney Bob Hale was betrothed to in childhood. Whoever finds the girl splits the billion-plus in lottery takings with the foundation. Assisting Nails and Bob are convict Policy Pinkle and his dedicated team of career jailbirds who don't want to leave the cushy life they lead in Lark's Nest Prison. This is all complicated (like it needed more complications?) by the fact that Nails and Bob are in love, and they are being pressured by a bankrupt US government itching to collect millions in taxes from the winner. How can the missing girl be identified?  At age 7, she sat on a hot waffle iron and so . . . like I said, it's convoluted.

Director Michael Leeds has adapted the original Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse script with a faithful sense of period spirit, and did a fine job of strengthening the score by adding other Porter hits. But Leeds and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler don't always know how to keep this show ticking. Their approach may have been effective last season on the shoebox stage at the Goodspeed Opera House, but it proves uneven in this full scale production. However, when they are right on target, its a hoot. One visual gag involving falling ducks (I won't say more) built up to a kooky comic triumph – the kind of laughter that heals.

Kenneth Foy's witty sets work wonders with plenty of 30's-style flats, and Ann Hould-Ward's costumes hit all the right notes. It never hurts to have the incomparable lighting designer Ken Billington on hand to show everything and everyone off to best advantage. And Tom Helm's sure hand in the pit made Dan DeLange's delicious (and, yes, de-lovely!) new orchestrations one of the highlights of the evening.

Few performers know how to handle period material, but Paper Mill – as usual – has rounded up some of the best. For musical theater buffs, hearing Debbie Gravitte belt her way through "Down in the Depths," "Ridin' High" and "Red, Hot and Blue" is a pleasure just barely this side of heaven. She is in better voice than ever, and she never missed a comic beat in the dialogue. Jim Walton does less dancing than I might have hoped for, but he hasn't had such a great chance to show off his crystalline tenor in ages. His "You Do Something to Me" is perfection, and its clear that he and Gravitte have a ball with the showstopping "It's De-Lovely." treating us to all of Porter's cheeky verses.

No one in the business today has mastered the pitfalls of golden age show biz comedy like Bruce Adler. As Policy Pinkle, he takes gags created for Jimmy Durante and makes them work. This is an amazing feat because he refuses the easy route of imitating Durante, performing the character on his own terms. Adler makes classic vaudeville-style takes, double takes, pratfalls and more look effortless. His best  moment – cross examining himself in front of a Congressional committee, bouncing in and out of a chair with breathless glee. Hilarious newcomer Stephanie Kurtzuba also won big laughs as a dumb blonde (the one with the waffled tush?), leading the ladies in a riotous rendition of "Most Gentlemen Don't Like Love." Watch for this lady in the future!

Special applause to Felicia Finley and Michael Gruber – talented, sexy performers who are given the thankless task of making an heiress-meets-pickpocket romance seem plausible. Here's hoping both are blessed with better roles (and better choreography) real soon!

I can't guarantee that Red, Hot and Blue will be your thing. But three cheers to Paper Mill for taking a chance on reviving this hit-drenched Cole Porter show. The songs and the cast deliver tons of fun – more than enough to make up for the book and the staging. And when was the last time you left a theater humming the book or the staging anyway?

(This limited run ended December 2, 2001)

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