Sparkling performances and Richard Israel’s deft direction make One Touch Of Venus, Musical Theatre Guild’s latest revival, a delightful 1940s bonbon.

With music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash, and book by S.J. Perlman and Nash, the 1943 Broadway hit tells the fantasy tale of a statue of Venus brought to life when a barber named Rodney Hatch unwittingly places an engagement ring (the one he was planning to give to his fiancée) on the statue’s finger. (If this sounds more than a bit like the 1987 movie Mannequin, you’re absolutely right. The 1948 movie adaptation of One Touch Of Venus served as that film’s inspiration.)

In less talented hands than those of the MTG pros (who put together a book-in-hand but otherwise nearly fully staged production—sorry, “concert staged reading”—in about 24 hours), One Touch Of Venus might come across more than a tad “old chestnut.” Fortunately, with the ingenious and genial Israel helming the project, and stellar performances all around, One Touch Of Venus proves so entertaining that one can even imagine a theater deciding to take a chance on a full-scale revival.

It helps that Weill’s melodies are thoroughly accessible “show tunes,” not at all what one might expect from the composer of The Threepenny Opera. Only “Speak Low” (and possibly “I’m A Stranger Here Myself”) are likely to be recognized, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of Weill’s compositions aren’t worth a listen. It helps too that Nash’s lyrics provide some of musical theater’s cleverest rhymes ever, beginning with these gems from the opening number about New vs. Old Art: “Watteau-blotto,” “Goya-paranoia,” “Modigliani-human fanny,” and “classical knavery-Whitelaw Savory.” (Whitelaw Savory happens to be the deliciously improbably name of the show’s gallery owner second male lead.)

“How Much I Love You,” young Rodney’s declaration of love, is almost worth the price of admission: “More than a catbird hates a cat, or a criminal hates a clue, Or the Axis hates the United States, That’s how much I love you.” Why has no one ever thought to make this kind of hate-love comparison before, and why isn’t this song a cabaret standard?

As Venus, Jennifer Shelton proves once again why she’s one of MTG’s brightest stars. Gorgeous beyond words with a soprano to match, Shelton brings such sexy sassiness and glamour to the part that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, let alone Mary Martin, who originated it. Will Collyer is so pitch-perfect (i.e. adorable, charming, goofy) in the role of barber-turned-romantic hero Rodney, and sings with such perfect 1940s crooner pipes, that he seems to have been cryogenically preserved from the WWII years and brought back to life in 2011. Kevin Symons plays Whitelaw with an absolutely savory panache, and like his costars, sings every bit as well as he emotes.

Supporting roles are every bit as splendid, beginning with Diane Vincent’s wise-cracking sidekick Molly (no wonder Eve Arden played her in the movie). Maura M. Knowles and Christopher Callen are absolutely hilarious as Gloria and Mrs. Kramer, the fiancée and future mother-in-law from hell. Chuck Bergman (Taxi Black) and Mark Reis (Stanley) do scene-stealing work in their gangsteresque roles.

The ensemble (Eydie Alyson, Dane Biren, Gregory Franklin, Pamela Hamill, Brent Schindele, Leslie Spencer, Adam Trent, and Ann Villella) provide terrific support, with special snaps to Trent’s very funny Indian-accented Zuvetli.

Karen Nowicki choreographs the show’s brief dance sequences with flair, and in one particularly inspired moment, narrator Eileen Barnett interrupts the just-begun “Forty Minutes For Lunch Ballet” with the announcement that 24 hours just aren’t enough for a 40-minute ballet, and the show skips forward to the next scene.

Dean Mora conducts a full-orchestra (I counted 14-15 musicians), possibly the first time for an MTG show, thanks to David Lee’s generous gift. (There’ll just be two pianos, however, for the show’s 2nd and last performance, in Thousand Oaks.) Art Brickman is stage manager.

One Touch Of Venus may not have stood the test of time nearly as well as Oklahoma!, which opened only six months before, but as an MTG vehicle it turns out to be one of the most entertaining of the “rarely produced, nearly forgotten, not quite classics” that make up most of their seasonal repertoire. With Israel in charge, Shelton, Collyer, and Symons as its leads, and about as accomplished an ensemble as can be imagined, One Touch Of Venus ends up being One Touch Of Magic.

The Alex Theatre, Glendale
–Steven Stanley
February 7, 2011

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