A trio of convicts transported to 1910 French Guiana prove Christmas guardian angels to an absentminded shopkeeper, his long-suffering wife, and their lovesick daughter in Sam and Bella Spewack’s charming 1953 comedy My Three Angels, delightfully revived for 21st Century audiences by theGROUPrep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre.

Shopkeeper Felix Ducotel is certainly in need of some sort of intervention, divine or otherwise, if he wishes to be rescued from the financial straits he finds himself in on this sweltering Christmas Eve. Felix’s wife Emilie has already done all she can, browbeating him to be more practical till she’s blue in the face, but what’s a woman to do with a husband who allows scatterbrained (i.e. devious) customers like Madame Parole to oh-so conveniently “forget” their pocketbooks at home, or even worse, who invests (i.e. loses) their entire savings in a goldmine “somewhere in the west,” then tells poor Emilie that she wouldn’t understand “such affairs.” Then there’s the matter of Felix and Emilie’s daughter Marie Louise, whose sweetheart Paul hasn’t written in months (insisting that “letters are so banal”), and has now arrived in Cayenne with his uncle Henri as his traveling companion and marriage to a Marie Louise’s heiress friend Suzanne in his future. As for Henri, who Felix claims once swindled him out of a department store (legally, Felix must admit), the wily businessman has his own motive for visiting Cayenne—namely to audit Felix’s books in hopes of taking control of the business he set Felix up in only last year.

If ever a man needed three angels, Felix Ducotel is that man, and luckily for him, the three convicts currently doing repair work up on his roof are ready and willing to work some miracles before Christmas day tomorrow. 60something Joseph, aka 3011, has been sent to French Guiana for swindling one naïve stockholder too many. Joseph’s contemporary Jules, aka 6817, is there for having murdered his cheating wife. As for 20something Alfred, aka 4707, money was the motive for his particular murder. Fortunately for the Ducotels, there’s never been a more amiable trio of criminals than these three.

Within a matter of mere minutes, Joseph has turned Felix’s business around, Jules has set about planning to rid Felix of Henri’s troublesome presence, and young Alfred has caught Marie Louise’s eye, and vice versa, the mop-haired lad clearly a more suitable match for the beauteous maiden than the cad she’s spent the last year pining over.

By the way, the trio come armed with a conveniently poisonous snake named Adolphe.

Husband-and-wife team Sam and Bella Spewack are perhaps best known for their Tony-winning book for Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, but the playwright spouses also had a baker’s dozen Broadway plays to their credit from 1928 to 1961, with My Three Angels the best known of the bunch. (A 1955 movie adaptation entitled We’re No Angels starred Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Rey, and Peter Ustinov in the title roles, and a 1989 remake cut the three angels cut down to two—Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn.)

Written in the grand three-act tradition of mid-20th century American theater, My Three Angels’ three acts (and two intermissions) have been lovingly preserved by theGROUPrep, and under Larry Eisenberg’s lively direction, a cast of ten deliver mostly excellent performances, making theGROUPrep’s annual Christmas offering a surefire holiday crowd-pleaser.

Cast standouts include Julia Silverman’s loving but no-nonsense Emilie, Chris Winfield’s distinguished but dastardly Henri, and Daniel Sykes’ handsome but caddish Paul. As Marie Louise, Kelsi Zahl’s blend of beauty and quirkiness in equal portions proves irresistible, Garrett Marshall’s Alfred is just about the charmingest lug any sweet young thing could dream of, and the delicious Hersha Parady gives us a Madame Parole in the grand tradition of Hollywood battleaxes. Doug Haverty’s makes for a fine milquetoast of a Felix, though his heavy stage makeup proves a distraction on the intimate Lonny Chapman stage. On a less positive note, theGROUPrep veteran Gallo would do well to develop a more clearly-delineated Jules (and master his lines). Lloyd Pederson too stumbled over quite a few lines as Joseph, but his performance is otherwise the production’s most infectiously winning. L.A. newcomer Michael Harrison demonstrates charm and raffish good looks as a naval lieutenant whose brief appearance in the play’s final minutes ties things up as neatly as a bow.

My Three Angels looks great. Winfield, doing double duty as set designer, has created an attractive Guianese general store featuring a fine combination of imported-from-France furnishings and native bamboo. Jazmin Lopez lights Winfield’s set with a tropical glow, Angela Eads has designed some splended period costumes mostly in shades of cream to match the Ducotel shop’s walls, and Steve Shaw’s well-conceived sound design features numerous script-appropriate effects underscored by steel drum Calypso tunes.

My Three Angels is produced for theGROUPrep by Laura Coker and Troy Whitaker. Linda Alznauer is assistant director.

My Three Angels is the kind of comedy to inspire theater folk to say, “They don’t write’em like that anymore,” and with good reason. Sam and Bella Spewack’s comedy has a sweetness and charm that may well have become passé in these rougher, more R-rated days. Nostalgic theatergoers of any age would do well to take this delightful trip to 1910 French Guiana as seen through rose-colored Eisenhower-era glasses.

Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 17, 2011
Photos: Sherry Netherland

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