I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for body-swapping flicks. Name a title and I’ve probably seen it. All Of Me. 13 Going On 30. 17 Again. 18 Again! Like Father, Like Son. Big. Chances Are. Vice Versa. Heaven Can Wait. Freaky Friday. Switch. Prelude To A Kiss. Have a character suddenly find him or herself inhabiting someone else’s body or an older or younger version of the one he or she already has—and I am in for the duration, knowing that there’ll be laughter, romance, and maybe even a tear or two as life lessons are learned all the way up to the moment when—inevitably—the switch back is made.

That’s probably why I proved such a sucker for the Pasadena Playhouse’s season opener Under My Skin, a body-swapping comedy by Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser that takes the genre from screen to stage to hilarious effect, even as it updates it to our 2012 world and gives it a particularly inspired twist that only one of the above movies has even vaguely attempted.

  Erin Cardillo is single mother Melody Dent, a petite fireball living with—and for—her mouthy teenage daughter Casey (Danielle Soibelman) and her ever more forgetful grandfather Samuel (Hal Linden). Having abandoned all dreams of an MBA for marriage to a nogoodnik who ended up leaving her and Casey to fend for themselves, Melody now toils as a low-end, benefits-free temp for a major HMO.

Matt Walton is tall, dark, and handsome Harrison Badish, CEO of said HMO, a man for whom profits are the bottom line and caring for the sick—or not caring as the case may be—merely a way of insuring his stockholders even greater profits and his board members even greater bonuses.

With only the financial means to take out the least expensive policy, Melody soon discovers that she is the lowest rung on the HMO’s totem pole of priorities, meaning that she can either keep her appointment on Monday at 8:00 a.m. (she’s been suffering from steadily worsening abdominal pains) or reschedule for six months from now. And don’t get Grandpa started on the “care” they offer senior citizens, who at the very least deserve checker boards in the waiting rooms and massage chairs like the ones they have at the mall.

But let’s cut to the chase.

 One day at work, Melody and Harrison find themselves sharing an elevator (or more precisely Melody has been ordered into the elevator to hold Harrison’s coffee cup so that it doesn’t spill on his designer suit) when suddenly the lift plunges them fourteen stories to their deaths.

Or at least that’s how it would be without the intervention of Angel (Yvette Cason), quite literally an angel, and a sassy Angel Of Color at that, who discovers that a mistake has been made and that at the very best/worst, only one of them was supposed to die. As for which of them that is, well, she’s just going to have to check with The Woman Upstairs and get back to them about it. In the meantime, if anyone wonders how they survived a thirteen-story crash (or perhaps only twelve, since most buildings skip the thirteenth floor), employer and temp can use that old chestnut, “We jumped just as the elevator hit bottom.”

Cut to the hospital, where Melody and Harrison awake to find … Well, if you’ve seen any of the body-swapping movies mentioned up a half-dozen or so paragraphs, you can easily complete this sentence, though Under My Skin does the predictable with quite a twist. You see, if this were all but one of the abovementioned body-swap movies, Cardillo would keep on playing Melody (though channeling Harrison), it would be vice versa for Walton, and we in the audience would have to remember that even though it was Melody’s voice coming out of Cardillo’s mouth, it was really Harrison speaking, the reverse holding true for Walton.

 Not so in Under My Skin, which gives us 6-footer Walton playing “Melody” in a dress, and a considerably smaller and curvier Cardillo as “Harrison” in a suit, a concept that might not work on film (though Heaven Can Wait did do something of the sort) but makes for absolute hilarity on stage, if only for the sight of a hunk in heels and a gal with an uncontrollable erection inside her/his pajama bottoms. In addition, seeing Melody played by a man and Harrison by a woman gives us a better idea of the awkwardness these two characters feel when stepping into the skin of someone of a different gender. As for what the outside world sees when they look at Melody and Harrison, a pair of inspired “mirror” sequences show us that to everyone but us, the duo keep looking the same as always.

 Contributing to the all-around fun and frolic is Megan Sikora as Melody’s sex-crazed, breast-augmented longtime best friend Nannette, for whom the words “No! No!” do not exist; along with scene-stealers Tim Bagley and Monette Magrath as every other character in Melody’s and Harrison’s lives.

Now I’d venture to guess that there will be curmudgeonly drama critics determined to pan Under My Skin because a) it’s not art and b) the genre has been done to death.  To them, this theater reviewer unashamedly responds, get off your high horses and just enjoy the ride. Under My Skin may not be “art,” but it’s an extremely funny, surpringly smart, and delightfully original take on a “done-to-death” genre. And besides, the body-swapping tales listed in Paragraph One were all movies, and when was the last time you saw a body-swapping play? Add to that Under My Skin’s current-as-today’s-headlines look at the greedy money-grubbers who run our nation’s HMOs and you’ve got quite a season opener for the Playhouse.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who a year ago directed Cabaret at Reprise—a revival which went on to win thirteen Scenies including Production Of The Year, Musical—now proves herself every bit the comedy whiz that she was directing and choreographing the best Cabaret I’ve ever seen, aided and abetted at the Playhouse by eight of the most talented comedic actors in town.

Artistic director Sheldon Epps couldn’t have hired two finer, funnier leading players for Under My Skin than Cardillo and Walton, neither of whom probably ever imagined themselves cross-dressing for most of a two-hour play. Playwrights Sternin and Fraser give the pair plenty to work with, particularly in scenes which have them discovering sex as seen from the opposite side, as when Cardillo-as-Melody-as-Harrison learns that yes indeed “it” does have a mind of its own or later gives Harrison’s Hitchcock Blonde of a girlfriend the orgasm of a lifetime, since who better than a woman (in a man’s body) to find that spot in the flick of a finger.  As for Walton-as-Harrison-as-Melody, the male chauvinist learns first hand in a very funny bar sequence what it feels like to be nothing more than a piece of meat on display, and the greedy CEO-turned-female HMO patient discovers how it feels when her doctor’s hands are tied by an organization more bent on profits than health.

 Linden proves that even at 81 he hasn’t lost an iota of the comedic chops that helped make Barney Miller an eight-season smash. Soibelman, in the fifth role I’ve reviewed her in,  enters her teens quite splendidly with a deliciously tart turn on the once perfect daughter turned mean girl the second she crossed over from twelve to thirteen. As for Cason, the Broadway vet makes the most of her every divalicious moment as an Angel with attitude.

 Bagley and Magrath may have the funnest assignments of all, Sternin and Fraser’s script letting them strut their stuff (and versatility) playing assorted doctors, nurses, TV anchors, interns, and more. Bagley is especially funny as a wannabe “player” who attempts to chat up “Melody” in a bar and as the gynecologist who gives “her” the pelvic examination of a man’s life. As for multiple Scenie-winner Magrath, just as Desire Under The Elms proved she could be as seductive a stunner as the vampiest vamp, Under My Skin reveals a comedienne to be reckoned with, whether in hilariously vapid anchorwoman mode or even more deliciously as Harrison’s ice goddess girlfriend Victoria.

 Finally, there’s bouncy, bubbly, ball-of-fire Sikora, stealing scenes left (boob) and right (boob) as Nannette, Melody’s long-legged, big-chested, huge-hearted best friend, a comic tornado of a performance that is the best of a whole bunch of reasons not to miss Under My Skin.

 Still another reason to catch Under My Skin is its sensational production design, created by some of our most prolific and prodigious talents, including John Iacovelli, Kate Bergh, and Jared A. Sayeg, recent Scenie winners as (respectively) Scenic, Costume, and Lighting Designers Of The Year. Iacovelli’s Mondrian-inspired squares-and-rectangles set does magical things, expanding to show us Harrison’s deluxe apartment in the sky with a magnificent, panoramic view of Manhattan, or contracts to take us to Melody’s considerably more modest kitchen, and assorted places in between. Bergh’s costumes not only reveal the designer’s understanding of each character, but feature dresses for Walton and suits for Cardillo that Bergh probably never expected to be creating back in design school. Sayeg’s lighting design is as always a dazzler, while veteran designer Philip G. Allen has created a terrifically varied sound palette to back up the action.

Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Nate Genung is production stage manager, Jill Gold stage manager, Joe Witt production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, and Kristen Hammack company manager.

It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed as much inside the Pasadena Playhouse as I did watching Under My Skin. Yes, I may fit the production’s target audience to a T, sucker that I am for you know what, but even those at last night’s opening who may not have seen even one of the dozen movies cited back at the start of this review seemed to be enjoying themselves every bit as much as I was. Simply put, there’s no better way in town to forget your troubles and just be happy than Under My Skin.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
September 19, 2012
Photos: Jim Cox

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