Flawed '2 By 2' Done Well

May 01, 1991|By Tim Weinfeld | Tim Weinfeld,Contributing theater critic

TANEYTOWN — Everyone involved in "Two By Two" at The Havilah-Hayes Dinner Theatre is to be congratulated for producing a delightful evening of theater against enormous odds.

The enormous odds, that is, posed by Richard Rodgers and Martin Charnin, who provided the music, lyrics and book for this charming but shallow musical comedy.

Originally successful in New York as a vehicle for Danny Kaye, the play tells the biblical story of Noah, his wife and family, the animals, the Flood and all the other details with a few newly invented ones to spice up the plot.

Let's get those odds out of the way right from the start. Richard Rodgers simply flounders in the company of Martin Charnin. It is not Charnin's fault that he lacks the wit and sophistication of Larry Hart and the sentimentality and humanity of Oscar Hammerstein. What Charnin provides is a book and lyrics that are cute and fun, to which Rodgers has married music that is mostly simplistic and banal.

Another weakness of the author's work is the imbalance created by the language in each of the two acts. Act 1 has an innocence and ingenuousness consistent with the characters and events.Then, for reasons known only to Charnin, profanity and scatology areintroduced in the second act, and suddenly the entire tone of the piece is irrevocably altered for the worse.

No one leaves this play humming the tunes or recalling and reliving the language. What "sticks" in this production are the people involved. The directing, acting, singing, music and technical production are a constant source of pleasure.

Designer Steve Parsons has provided an appropriately cartoonish environment and solves the problem of two different settings onthe postage stamp-sized stage. One wonders, though, why his lightingremains static when stage manager Colleen Foley is being the voice of God with a thunder sheet. How much more powerful the force would beif it were visual as well as auditory.

Director Jean Burgess has done a terrific job of keeping the production visually interesting when the small performance space precludes the usual dancing and physical movement anticipated in a musical comedy. She has paced the entireevening effectively. There are no really slow moments, and each act feels tight and brief.

The Pipe Creek Park stage has problems of egress, which have affected earlier productions in the facility, but Burgess has used house entrances through the audience to good advantage.

Another potential problem area with a story and characters suchas these is the inclination of actors to do more than is necessary to bring them to life. Burgess has shaped cast members into an effective ensemble with a strong sense of purpose and proportion.

It is also a real pleasure to listen to actors without the "benefit" of electronic amplification: They actually sound like real people. It was a welcome change from five recently experienced Broadway shows.

The singing, which is generally very fine and strongly contributive, on occasion calls attention to itself and interrupts the flow of the performance. When the actors maintain their characters in song, all is well. When a couple of them switch into recital mode they leave their characters far behind.

What Michael Pressimone lacks in the Danny Kaye department he more than makes up for in the Michael Pressimone department. His agile body, strong voice and Disney face add up to an engaging Noah whether he's 91 or 600 years old. Pressimone's comedic talents are well-used here.

Every effort should be made to keep Roger Buchanan busy as an actor. As Shem, he looks like a Middle Easternoil magnate and sounds and acts like a used-car salesman. He moves elegantly for a large man, and his vocal work is terrific.

Doug Chandler is solid as the next son, Ham, though he could benefit, perhaps, from a more idiosyncratic characterization.

The youngest son, Japheth, played by Keith Purcaro, is mostly believeable, but could contribute even more to the production had he been more rebellious. The whole sense of the reconciliation with his father in the finale would be truly meaningful if this were achieved. As it stands it lacks emotional punch.

Edith Burbage and Ann Barcroft acquit themselves wellin roles of the wives. Dinah Gifford and Victoria Fowler, while somewhat inconsistent in their characterizations, contribute positively.

Finally, the small ensemble "on the side," musical director Ivan Sherman, Mark Mills and Monte Leister, do as well as they can, given the score with which they must contend.

"Two By Two" continues Friday through Sunday May 3, 4 and 5, and 10, 11 and 12 at The Havilah-Hayes Dinner Theatre in Taneytown. Tickets are available at Scharon's Black Eagle.

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