The Pasadena Playhouse has come up with a surefire recipe for crowd-pleasing comedy. Start with a script by a master playwright, hire a cast of crackerjack comedic whizzes, surround them with a production that looks as smashing as Broadway’s best, and above all, entrust the entire project to director Art Manke, who has taken an early Noël Coward gem and turned it into a hilarious hit that would do Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance proud.

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Coward’s and Manke’s Lucy and Ethel stand-ins are Londoners Julia and Jane (Pamela J. Gray and Katie MacNichol), longtime best friends whose five-year-old marriages to Fred and Willy (Mike Ryan and Loren Lester) have lost their initial luster, making it no wonder that the twosome react ever so strongly to news that the Frenchman with whom each did some premarital dallying is on his way to London tout de suite. Could it be that Maurice Duclos intends to rekindle old flames, collateral damage be damned?

Jane suggests an escape to America, and has in fact shown up on Julia’s doorstep suitcase in hand. Julia, on the other hand, is determined to “stay and face it,” and since Jane can hardly accept her friend’s “gallivanting around London” with Maurice while she goes into out-of-town hiding, the two women agree to stick around and “whatever we do, whatever we say, when temporarily unhinged by sex, afterwards, perfect friendship, and no apologies.”

IMG_4441 All of the above is merely a setup for our two heroines, their husbands off golfing for the day, to spend the rest of the morning, afternoon, and evening getting steadily tipsier as they await the certain arrival of world-class Casanova Maurice.

On paper, 1925’s Fallen Angels, while not at the level of Coward’s later hits Private Lives, Present Laughter, and Blithe Spirit, makes for an amusing read, with its Cowardian witticisms like “Several drinks never do any harm. It is only the first which is dangerous. After that, the damage is done.”

Still, Coward’s script only begins to suggest the level of hilarity achieved by director Manke and company on the Pasadena Playhouse stage, with the divine duo of Gray and MacNichol executing tour-de-force physical comedy that would do Carol Burnett, Laverne & Shirley, or the abovementioned Lucy and Ethel proud, all the while maintaining Coward’s trademark sophistication and style.

IMG_4823 Fallen Angels’ (and Manke’s) secret weapon is Fred and Julia’s Cockney maid Saunders, played with hilarious abandon by a sensational Mary-Pat Green. Not only does Saunders prove herself a woman of many talents (speaking fluent French and playing virtuoso piano being only two of her multiple gifts), the breadth of her work experience beggars the imagination, with each new revelation (“I was in the desert with the Red Cross. I also visited several deserts when I was with ENSA” [the British equivalent of the USO]) more outrageous than the one before.

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Though the men play second fiddle to the women in this Coward bonbon, Lester and Ryan acquit themselves smashingly, as does Elijah Alexander, whose much anticipated eleventh-hour entrance as the très glamorous Maurice proves well worth the wait.

IMG_4353 Tom Buderwitz gives Fred and Julia a London flat I’d wager even the wealthiest Playhouse donor wouldn’t mind calling his or her own, as gorgeously designed and meticulously appointed as any I’ve seen from the master scenic designer. (Look out the drawing room windows to see a detailed London skyline, and actual rain falling when the script dictates.) David K Mickelsen’s elegant period costumes fit each character (and his or her station in life) to a T as do Judi Lewin’s hair, wig, and makeup designs, and the above designers’ creations look even better bathed in Peter Maradudin’s expert lighting. Sound designer Steven Cahill not only gives us realistic effects but has composed original music to add further sparkle to the evening. Kudos go too to dialect coach David Nevell, whose team of players reveal not the slightest hint of the U.S.A. in their spot-on accents.

Randall K. Lum is production stage manager and Scott Harrison assistant stage manager. Joe Witt is production manager, Brad Enlow technical director, and Kristen Hammack company manager. Michael Donovan, CSA’s casting is once again spot-on.

Fallen Angels at the Pasadena Playhouse proves the kind of production that may make an audience wonder: Doesn’t this play deserve more frequent revivals? My guess is that it would get them … that is, if Art Manke would agree to direct.

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

–Steven Stanley
February 3, 2013
Photos: Jim Cox

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