`Front Page' still newsworthy

Critic's Corner//Theater

Critic's Corner//Theater

February 15, 2007|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur would probably have been amused to know that their work was being performed by a Shakespeare company. The two former Chicago newspapermen plumbed their own printers' ink-stained experiences for the raw material for The Front Page.

The dialogue, laden with politically incorrect 1920s slang, isn't exactly Elizabethan verse, and the characters are far from princes ("lousy, daffy buttinskis" is the way the play's star reporter describes the distinguished members of his profession). But, there Front Page is, ensconced between Love's Labor's Lost and Henry V in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's fifth season.

The company is using a rediscovered version of Hecht and MacArthur's original 1928 script, edited by Columbia resident George W. Hilton. But while the text may be painstakingly authentic (right down to the racial slurs), some of the performances by director Ian Gallanar's large cast feel less so.

Instead of appearing comfortable with the period material, for example, a number of the younger ensemble members give the impression that they are dressing up in their father's - or grandfather's - suit jackets and fedoras.

This isn't the case with Charlie Mitchell's portrayal of the protagonist, hotshot reporter Hildy Johnson, who's leaving the newspaper racket to settle down, get married and work in advertising. The actor looks fine and dandy sporting spiffy two-tone shoes and a natty walking stick. But almost the entire production is performed at too high a pitch, and Mitchell's performance is partly to blame. With the temperature elevated from the beginning, neither he nor the rest of the company has enough heat left when the sparks - or in this case, gunshots - start flying.

Those gunshots are heard when Earl Williams, an anarchist and convicted murderer, escapes on the eve of his hanging. Reece Thornbery delivers a first-rate, measured portrayal of this frightened convict.

Equally notable are Don Edward Black as the bumbling sheriff; Steve Beall as Hildy's editor, who will stop at nothing to keep Hildy on his staff; and Heather Whitpan as Hildy's exasperated fiancee. Carol Randolph as his future mother-in-law and Joel Ballard as a sheepish messenger also distinguish themselves in smaller roles.

Seeing Front Page after the hit Broadway revival and Oscar-winning movie version of Kander and Ebb's musical, Chicago (based on a 1926 play by another former Chicago reporter), increases your appreciation of the way crime and yellow journalism fed off each other in this tarnished bygone era. Cynics might say nothing's changed, which partly explains why the play has resurfaced in so many incarnations.

An equally valid reason, however, is that - as even this frequently excessive production proves - the humor Hecht and MacArthur found in their former profession still tickles the funny bone almost a century later.

The Front Page runs through Feb. 25 at the Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City. Tickets are $20. For more information, call 410-313-8874 or visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

Moving On

Who's crying now? The musical theater version of John Waters' Cry-Baby is California-bound. The show, which has a score by Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan (Tony Award winners for their stage adaptation of Hairspray), will play an out-of-town engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse Oct. 30-Dec. 16, before what is expected to be a New York opening next season. The California run replaces the originally announced run at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, which was to have begun this month.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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