Folks had best not try to pull the wool over Billie Dawn’s eyes or they’ll soon discover she wasn’t Born Yesterday—or at least that’s what some Washington D.C. politicos find out the hard way in Born Yesterday, Garson Kanin’s Broadway classic and a terrific season opener for Claremont’s Inland Valley Repertory Theatre.

IMG_4141-L Theater buffs will recall Kanin’s 1946 play as the one that made Judy Holliday a Broadway star, while film aficionados will tell you that Holliday’s Billie trounced All About Eve’s very own Margo Channing in an Oscar upset that surely rankled Miss Bette Davis for the rest of her career.

Then again, if ever there were a comedy role destined to win accolades and awards, it’s the delectably, divinely dumb Miss Dawn, now brought to brassy but ever so huggable life on the Candlelight Pavilion stage by Scenie winner Adrianne Hampton.

Billie and her millionaire Bluto of a boyfriend, junk mogul Harry Brock (Steve Siegel), have arrived in mid-1940s Washington to do business with the bigwigs, though if you asked Billie why  (or what all those papers Harry’s been having her sign are), she’d probably respond that she doesn’t know or care. Call her dumb and you’ll get no argument from Billie. “I got everything I want. Two mink coats. Everything,” she declares with undisguised pride. And if Harry doesn’t come across? “If he doesn’t come across, I don’t come across. If you know what I mean,” she adds with a wink. Racy stuff for 1946, but this was after all Broadway, where you could get away with a lot more sexual innuendo than on the silver screen.

IMG_4202-L Harry’s latest business brainstorm is to buy up every bit of scrap he can scout out in postwar Europe and sell it for megabucks in the States, if only he can find a way to avoid having to pay those pesky import tariffs. Enter corrupt Senator Norval Hedges (David Masters), whose Hedges-Keller Amendment would block any State Department interference in Harry’s business affairs and guarantee the Senator a hefty kickback from his crooked partner in crime.

There’s just one fly in Harry’s ointment and she’s an ex-chorine named Billie, whose lack of social graces could prove embarrassing to a man doing business with Washington bigwigs, that is unless Harry can get her educated pronto.

IMG_4344-L Fortunately for Harry, reporter Paul Verral (Spencer Weitzel) has shown up on Harry’s fancy Washington hotel doorstep in search of an interview—and just in time for the millionaire junk king to offer him a tidy sum to put a little learning into Billie’s heretofore uneducated head.

Not surprisingly, Harry gets considerably more than he bargained for, since not only does a little education go a long way, there’s also the matter of the almost instantaneous attraction between this Henry Higgins for hire and his bottle-blonde Eliza Doolittle. Add romance to erudition and you’ve got a potent combination that an unsuspecting Harry will soon live to regret.

IMG_4391-L Born Yesterday may be sixty-seven years old and its brassy heroine very much a product of her time, but as anyone following today’s political scene can tell you, there are just as many deals being made in 2013 Washington as in the mid 1940s, making Kanin’s play a still relevant period piece, and one that hasn’t lost an iota of its ability to entertain.

It helps of course when Born Yesterday is helmed by a director who understands both era and genre, and Kevin Slay is just such a director, eliciting pitch-perfect performances from his three leads and surrounding them with a first-rate supporting cast.

Hampton is so darned terrific as Billie that it’s hard to believe it’s the musical theater triple-threat’s first play. Clearly, Hampton is every bit as fast a study as Billie, and she scores laugh after laugh with her Jean Harlow voice and a walk that our heroine seems to have been picked up from watching too many high society dames on screen and not quite getting how they do it. If ever there were a character we embrace from first entrance, it’s Hampton’s Billie, and as Billie falls in love with her own newly-educated self, so at the same time do we.

IMG_4105-L As Harry to Hampton’s Billie, Siegel has clearly done his Golden Era Hollywood homework, creating a classic movie tough guy in the grand tradition of James Cagney, Edward G.Robinson, Ernest Borgnine, and Broderick Crawford (who created the role of Harry on the silver screen) and giving us a Harry Brock we can’t help liking even as we recoil from his total lack of couth.

As for Billie’s partner in romance (and payback), it’s hard to imagine a better Paul than Weitzel, whose acting chops, stage presence, charisma, and charm make him just the man to win not only a bleach blonde’s heart, but the audience’s as well. Add to that the palpable romantic chemistry between Hampton’s Billie and Weitzel’s Paul and you’ve got a couple you can’t help rooting for.

Supporting performances are uniformly tiptop, and befitting the style of the era—Rob Foley as Harry’s lawyer Ed, who’s sacrificed his principles for a $100,000-a-year salary (that’s over a million dollars today) and drowns his disappointments in glass after glass of Scotch; David Masters as weasely Senator Hedges; Karen Lancaster as the Senator’s very 1940s wife; and Michael Buczynski as Harry’s wheel-greasing brother Eddie.

Sean Fesler (Barber) and Peter Varvel (Assistant Manager) make the amusing most of their cameos, with Jennifer Rubino (Helen), Jeremy Loechner (Bootblack), Bryant Watson (Bellhop), Anthony Nuno (Waiter), and Marshon Rayford (Another Bellhop) completing the first-rate cast.

Scheduling Born Yesterday to coincide with the run of Candlelight’s mainstage offering The Sound Of Music proves inspired, as the exterior of the Trapp Family villa now becomes the most over-the-top opulent “Garden Suite” any Harry and Billie could hope to call their Washington home away from home. Lighting, period costumes, and sound design add to the thoroughly professional quality of IVRT’s season opener.

Hope Kaufman is Born Yesterday’s assistant director.  IVRT is headed by Frank Minano (producing artistic director), Donna Marie Minano (executive director), and Terre Gunkel (artistic director).

Born Yesterday may be the product of a bygone era when all plays had three acts and as many walk-on characters as an author desired, damn the expense, but it remains every bit the crowd-pleaser it was in 1946 nearly seven decades later. In some ways, you might even think Born Yesterday was Written Yesterday—or at least that’s how it feels with Slay, Hampton, Siegel, and Weitzel in charge.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
February 20, 2013
Photos: Isaac James Creative

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