1st Stage Flora the Red MenaceBy Bob Ashby • May 23rd, 2012 • Category: Reviews
1st Stage Theater, Tyson’s Corner, VA
Through June 17th
2:40 with one intermission
$30/$15 Student (+ Fees)
Reviewed May 19th, 2012
In a well-intended and generally well-executed, but ultimately futile, bit of theater archeology, 1st Stage dusts off the 1965 Kander-Ebb musical, Flora the Red Menace. The show is of genuine historical interest. It was the first produced Kander-Ebb show, preceding hits like Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, and it featured the Broadway debut of Liza Minelli. Despite Minelli’s Tony-winning performance, the show closed after 87 performances. From the current production, which follows a 1987 revision of the show, it is easy to understand why: the musical and dramatic material is simply quite weak.
Set in 1935 New York, Flora focuses on its protagonists’ conflicts between romance and Communist Party discipline. Flora (Dani Stoller), dreaming of success as a fashion illustrator, is persuaded to sign up as a card-carrying member by Harry (Joshua Dick), a mural artist and dedicated Party functionary. They fall for each other as the Party, led by Charlotte (Sherry Berg), tries to organize a union at Flora’s employer. An important structural weakness of the script is that the show’s principal dramatic conflict, concerning Flora’s dilemma about whether to cross a picket line in an attempt to save the jobs of her co-workers, is not introduced until halfway through Act 2.
Labor/management strife had already been used as a source of romantic tension, with greater artistic and commercial success, in 1954’s The Pajama Game. Because of both its Depression-era setting and its focus on the Communist Party, Flora is darker, but Kander and Ebb are never fully in control of the show’s tone. It alternates between comic and serious takes on Americans’ attraction to Communism in the 1930s, interspersed with standard-fare Broadway scenes and songs about the joys and troubles of aspiring young artists and performers in New York.
The score contains little memorable music. Berg is the production’s outstanding performer, and Charlotte’s belt number “The Flame,” an up-tempo, satirical anthem to the Party’s endless to-do list, injects a jolt of life into the often-listless first act. Her “Express Yourself” is a bravura comic forcible seduction number in the mold of Damn Yankees‘ “Whatever Lola Wants.” Harry’s “The Joke” is a stirring call to action against injustice. One can easily imagine Harry, who like many of his peers was either ignorant about or willfully blind to the Stalinist terror of the same period, leaving for Spain in 1937 to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Stoller’s sweet, modest-sized soprano voice is effective in subdued numbers like “A Quiet Thing.” In other numbers, a stronger, edgier sound — which does not appear until her final number, “Sing Happy” — would help to put across her character’s intended spunk. Stoller gets her character’s naïvety and resilience, and she has a fine sense of comic timing and delivery, deservedly receiving many of the evening’s laughs.
It is interesting to see Kander and Ebb beginning to explore elements that came to mark their mature work, such as powerful women (think Roxy, Velma, or Sally) who overwhelm the weaker men in their lives (think Amos or Cliff). Harry has his commitment to the Party as a constant in his life, but is otherwise a hapless magnet for the aggressive women who want him. Dick has a pleasing light baritone voice, and his character’s bewilderment about how to deal with Flora and Charlotte is convincing. Probably more the fault of the script than the actor, Harry’s periodically deployed stammer does not work consistently. The King’s Speech it ain’t.
Among the supporting roles, Maggie (Kelsey Meiklejohn) and Kenny (Sam Edgerly), whose characters appear to be mainly a device to insert a cute tap number into the show, perform that number (“Keepin’ It Hot”) effectively. Meiklejohn also does a nice character turn as the unpleasant secretary to Flora’s boss (Stephen Hock). Davis Hasty as the show’s narrator and Willy, Flora’s gentle, soft-spoken musician friend, gives the best physical performance of the night, with a relaxed presence that contrasts well with the more volatile, anxiety-ridden style of his peers. He saunters well. Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, as Flora’s friend Elsa, shows off a strong vocal instrument, while Mikey Cafarelli cannot age himself sufficiently to convince as Mr. Weiss.
The technical side of the production is strong. There are numerous costume changes, as the nine actors play a variety of roles, and Judi Welihan’s costumes consistently fit the period, characters, and situations. Mark Krikstan’s realistic set, consisting of wooden packing crates and a brick, factory-like exterior, creates an appropriately gritty atmosphere for the city during the Depression.
Through the building’s upstage center windows, one can see music director Paul Nasto vigorously conducting members of the seven-piece band and the brightly lit guitarist’s score, all of which can be distracting at times. The band sounds fine and maintains a good balance with the singers. Bless you, 1st Stage, for not miking the cast in this relatively small venue, thus allowing the audience to hear the singers’ natural sounds and enabling the location of the voices to mesh with director Susan Levine’s stage pictures.
Photos provided by 1st Stage
- Willy, Narrator: Davis Hasty
- Flora Mesaros: Dani Stoller
- Harry Toukarian: Joshua Dick
- Maggie: Kelsey Meiklejohn
- Kenny: Sam Edgerly
- Elsa: Mary Beth Luckenbaugh
- Mr. Weiss: Mikey Cafarelli
- Mr. Stanley: Stephen Hock
- Charlotte: Sherry Berg
- Director: Susan Devine
- Musical Director: Paul Nasto
- Choreographer: Stefan Sittig
- Orchestration: Paul Nasto
- Setting: Mark Krikstan
- Sound Design: Pao-Jen Yu
- Costumes: Judy Welihan
- Lighting: Andrew Jorgensen
- Stage Manager: Colleen Stock
- Dramaturge: Bekah Nettekoven Tello
- Program: Marty McGrane, Lynne Silverstein
- Reed 1: Dana Gardner
- Reed 2: Mila Weiss
- Trumpet: Terry Bradley, Scott Firestone, Brian Morton
- Trombone: Chris Bradley, Scott Fridy, Rick Schutz
- Keyboards: Bill VanLear
- Bass/Guitar: Eric Oganesoff
- Drums: Bill Wolski
- Rehearsal Pianist: Bill VanLear
- Set Construction: Howard Forman, Barry Holt, Mark Krikstan, Don Moore, Paul Nasto
- Electricians: Andrew Jorgensen, Anand Persaud, Fitz Samuel
- Program Cover Design: Harris Design, Inc.
Disclaimer: 1st Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8105.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.