When most people hear the word “vaudeville,” those who’ve heard of it probably think of a staged variety show with singers, comics, dance acts, magicians, and trained monkeys … or something of the like. At least that’s how I would have defined vaudeville before seeing An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville, at South Coast Rep.

Turns out the “vaudeville” in question is French Vaudeville, defined as “a comic play, with songs.” What, you ask? Isn’t that what we call a musical?

Exactly. French Vaudeville turns out to be a precursor of contemporary musical theater, French Farce with songs added to the mix, though with somewhat less sophistication than Feydeau and a good deal more corn … and if An Italian Straw Hat is any indication, French Vaudeville is delightful, silly fun indeed.

An Italian Straw Hat concerns itself with … an Italian straw hat, one which belongs to the beautiful Annabelle—until a gust of wind blows it into a tree, where it is promptly eaten by a horse being ridden by Winslow Fadley, a soon to be wed young gentleman, with doubts. (“One hour left, then it’s over. I turn into a married man … with a wife!”)  Since the story takes place back in 1906 New York City, a time in which no decent woman would be seen in public sans chapeau, Annabelle has no choice but to seek refuge in Fadley’s townhouse, until he can find a matching straw hat (with fake fruit on it).  Complications, as might be expected, ensue.

Humor in An Italian Straw Hat is of the Abbott and Costello sort, as in the following exchange:

–She called off her engagement when she found her fiancé with another woman.
–That’s horrible. She broke it off?
–No, just fractured it.

Many laughs come from Fadley’s Uncle Fez (“The uncle is deaf as a post”) and his frequent misunderstandings:

Ginny: Are you rich?
Uncle Fez: Yes, but I’m taking medication for it.
Fadley:  Have you seen my cummerbund?
Uncle Fez: Yes, but you want to add a raw egg.

Dennis McCarthy’s funny/corny book and lyrics are based on an 1851 French Vaudeville entitled “Un Chapeau De Paille D’Italie” (=An Italian Straw Hat—in French). Composer John Strand’s songs have a jaunty turn-of-the-previous-century feel about them.  In the opening number, “This Happy Life,” the ensemble sings gaily “What is this happy life without a hat?”  “Garden City” (it’s “itty bitty”) features a smooth soft-shoe engagingly staged by Christine Kellogg.

Director Stefan Novinski keeps everything light and breezy and deliciously over-the-top, aided by a sensational ensemble.

In order of appearance:

Daniel Blinkoff (Fadley) follows his charming turn in American Tales with another sweet early 20th Century innocent. Lovely soprano Erika Whalen gets her biggest Southland break yet as bride-to-be Helen.  SRC Founding Artist Richard Doyle has great fun as Helen’s penny-pinching father.  Melissa van der Schyff is amusing as Fadley’s former girlfriend and prospective hat shop owner Clara.  Alan Blumenfeld is Annabelle’s cuckolded husband, and gets many laughs while taking a foot bath in hardly more than his birthday suit.  Patrick Kerr is an uproariously confused Uncle Fez. Damon Kirsch once again spoofs to perfection his movie star handsome image as Annabelle’s lover Emile.  StageSceneLA’s Performer Of The Year Michelle Duffy continues her string of star turns as Annabelle, and shows off her fine legit voice to Strand’s melodic tunes. Matthew Koehler proves himself as adept at comedy as he was in his superb dramatic turn in Tracers.  And finally, Kasey Mahaffy (who stole every scene he was in in Taking Steps) does likewise here as Tardiveau, a would-be policeman who believes the people following him are figments of his imagination. (“Everything’s under control. The people who are following me are not there.”) Most of the cast appear in dual roles, doubling their pleasure and doubling our fun.

Also, a tip of an Italian straw hat to the adorable young duo of Matthew Bartosch and Jake Wells, who run (and roller-skate) about the set, moving furniture and props on stage and off to choreographed precision.

Musical director Dennis Castellano (on keyboards) heads a fine six piece band. Technical elements (Donna Marquet’s scenic design, Shigeru Yaji’s costumes, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting, and Drew Dalzell’s sound design) are at South Coast Rep’s usual high standards.

An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville is a musical probably quite unlike anything you’ve seen before, adding up to a delightful two hours of fun for the entire family.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
September 14, 2008
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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