JEWISH WRY

Probably the best argument that can be made for continuing federal funding for the arts is to consider what kind of entertainment would proliferate if market demands become the sole influence on artistic repertoire.

One measure by which we might gauge expectations for the theatre is to gaze into a crystal ball called television. If the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is denied continued support, look at what remains for current consumption. The major commercial networks churn out situation comedies and sex-and-violence-dominated dramas, presumably based on sophisticated marketing surveys that reveal what the majority of the public wants to see.

If we don't like what's on television, we have only our own pedestrian tastes to blame.

If Congress removes our museums, our symphonies, our operas and our serious theatre companies from the largess of federal support, we can expect to see a great deal more of theatrical presentations like Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!, in revival in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center through August 20.

If you like your humor corny, there are jokes by the earful: shtick as high as an elephant's eye. The level of humor is roughly what one might expect a group of adolescents to stage at the end of the summer at Camp Granada, which is to say, juvenile: Hello Muddah is as funny as Dumb and Dumber, and nearly as deep.

To be sure, it was lovely to see the little jewel box of a theatre filled to the third ring of the balcony, and to hear the sweet music of laughter from a summer audience out for a lark.

I don't complain about the loony exuberance in such an afternoon of brainless mayhem. I just worry that when every theatre is competing for the blockbuster audience, we may be reduced to a season that offers little else.

Already this season, Phoenix has been host to such zany pap as Nunsense, The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist, Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Run for Your Wife, none of which had any contemporary relevance or redeeming social value.

As dessert for a season of substantial dramatic fare, these trifles have been welcome divertissements from horrible realities like the war in Bosnia or the Simpson trial. But a steady diet of this kind of confection could starve the soul of our community.

Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! is Reader's Digest kind of theatre: safe, amusing and bland. It does have the distinction of being a local product, produced here originally in 1991 by the Theater League. Subsequently, it played in New York at the Circle in the Square Theatre for 235 performances and now can be seen in its triumphal return, none the worse for wear.

The revue is based on the outrageous lyrics of the television comedian Allan Sherman, who became famous for creating the classic game show I've Got a Secret and for rewriting ersatz lyrics to familiar music, drawing his imagery from middle-class suburban Jewish life. In his hands, "Fräre Jacques" becomes "Sarah Jackman," a gossipy telephonic dialogue about the exploits of various relatives.

Sherman died in 1973, but Douglas Bernstein and Rob Krausz took the comedy material from Sherman's Grammy-winning record album, and invented the dialogue and a thin plot to piece the songs together into a story about a Jewish Everyman. The result is a Borscht-belt musical quilt that traces the perils of a Jewish kid named Barry from birth through bar mitzvah, college and parenthood and finally to a Florida retirement community.

Here are some samples of the humor: Along the way, the kid will offer a Jewish revision of history that will include a report on Sir Greenbaum, a Jewish knight to remember. Seeing a sea of pubescent girls at camp, he remarks, "This is like the World Series of puberty! There must be about two million dollars' worth of orthodontia." Barry tells his prospective wife Sarah that under the theory that two beasts are hippopotamuses, "two Joyce Brothers would be a pair o'docs."

When Barry complains to his wife that his son grew up to be a Hare Krishna, she comforts him with "at least he plays an instrument." A paean at the demise of an unknown fabric salesman named Harry Lewis (who worked for a man named Roth), is sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," where "the drapes of Roth are stored."

You see what I mean.
The enterprise is helped enormously by the talented ensemble. Led by Jim Roehr as Barry and Debby Rosenthal as his wife, the perfectly balanced company plays a large cast of characters who surround this schlemiel. As usual, Bob Sorenson is delightful, but he is matched every step of the way by Hal Adams and Susan Miller-Dee. Every actor sings with rich timbre and perfect pitch, and they all move adroitly.

The choreography is a bit repetitious, but Kimberly Rose has done as well as could be hoped in trying to come up with different combinations for the same five performers. The whole show glides smoothly from one sketch to the next under the slick direction of one of the authors, Rob Krausz.

If the summer has fried your brain to the point that you really could use a lobotomy, perhaps you are ready for Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!. Numbingly coy it may be, but you will giggle. You will giggle helplessly. Be careful you don't drool.

 
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