To Each His Own

My faithful theater companion and I normally agree about the quality of the shows we see every weekend. When we don't, it's he who is more generous and forgiving about a program's shortcomings. Last weekend, during the long ride home from faraway Theater Works, we bandied words about the company's new production of My Favorite Year, which he found cheap-looking and sluggish, and which I thought was bright and amusing and full of pleasant surprises.

One of those surprises was the costumes, which my pal found too opulent for a show that took place on what he called a "second-rate set." I thought Margret Emerson's costume designs -- from the astonishing, bell-shaped frocks worn by the ingénue to the hilarious living coffee cups that tapped out a Maxwell House commercial -- were the best thing about this show. Emerson must have either emptied Theater Works' costume department or spent a year designing piles of attire that make this show's two-dozen players appear to be several hundred dress extras on the fictitious King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade.

My Favorite Year is a musical comedy based on Dennis Palumbo's and Norman Steinberg's screenplay for the 1982 film. New material by Joseph Dougherty, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens expands the story of Benjy Stone, a freshman writer on television's King Kaiser variety hour. The year in question is 1954, and Benjy has just made good with his first big comedy sketch. The last-minute guest on this week's show is Benjy's idol, washed-up screen star Alan Swann (think Errol Flynn), whom Benjy has been told to keep sober until the cameras roll.

My companion drew a big line through choreographer Robert L. Harper's name in the program, but I found Harper's dance routines perfect for a small-screen variety show. He's captured the ambition of early live television with bits of jazz, ballet and tap that, rolled into one, make for wonderfully cheesy production numbers.

We both agreed that director Gregory Jaye's set was as wobbly as any we'd seen, but I was charmed by its inventive quick changes, which turned the stationary soundstage setting into various other locales as quickly as the stagehands could work the scenery revolve. The only other thing we agreed on was that the lighting was dreadful; any scene involving Nick Campbell's quivering follow spot reduced us both to unmanly giggling fits.

The cast is first-rate. Dion Johnson is ready for bigger stages; in the meantime, he's wonderful here, pitching star fits as an oily-yet-lovable television host. T. John Weltzien's impersonation of a bombastic, Barrymore-esque has-been is also exceptional, as is teenaged Philip Groft's energetic performance in the lead. And Johanna Carlisle, whose work I've admired elsewhere (and who always reminds me of a young Kaye Ballard, no matter what she's performing), swipes every scene she's in. Her best bits occur in "The Joke," a song about selling a gag, and she makes a lot out of a little number involving her star turn in the big show. (My companion liked Carlisle, too, but his favorite moment occurred when Weltzien announced, "I know when to make an exit," but then couldn't because the door was stuck shut -- a goof not in the script.)

The tepid playing of the offstage, five-piece band thrilled neither of us, but I was impressed that Theater Works employed live musicians to perform Flaherty's score; usually the company uses prerecorded tracks for its musicals. I tried to convince my friend that the show's teeny budget made what we'd seen all the more impressive, but he wasn't having any. It was plain that My Favorite Year wasn't his favorite show, but I liked it just fine.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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