All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The Media Theatre’s production of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” wastes so much talent and lacks cohesion to such an extent it’s difficult to believe Dann Dunn’s staging is a sincere attempt to put on a quality show.
I was tempted to begin this review by announcing that Ann Crumb would be starring in the Media’s next offering, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” with Elisa Matthews in support as a way of saying relief for Media audiences is a short month away. I resisted such facetiousness because I think it’s more important to be serious about the mess “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” represents than it is to simply make fun of it. Especially since Victoria Mayo, Ashli Rian Rice, Lauren Cupples, and Megan Rucidlo, the ensemble that performs “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” deserve so much better in the way of material and production support.
Mayo, Rice, Cupples, and Rucidlo are talented women who have proved their mettle in other productions. They provide some good moments, but I have to admit I had a better time during intermission dancing with in the aisle with Mayo’s aunt to canned music by The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and other 60’s groups than I did watching the scheduled show.
The problem begins and may well end with Roger Bean, the writer and creator of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and, I imagine the one who chose its music.
Bean’s script and lead-ins to songs give jukebox musicals a bad name. No one who attends the current spate of shows that wrap a story around vintage pop hits, or parodies of the same, expects a deep or intense story. Nostalgia for the music we knew before songwriting essentially ended in the late ’80s supersedes the desire to see a poignant tale. The trick is get to the music before the audience yawns three times consecutively. Even a Broadway show like “Motown” understands that.
“Motown — The Musical,” “Jersey Boys,” the recently closed “A Night With Janis Joplin,” and “Beautiful,” a retrospective of Carole King songs may have limited what was available to Bean to use in “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” Rights can stymie creativity. But the ’60s yield a treasure trove of material for a show like Bean’s, and the songs he chooses, some from the 1990s, would be serviceable if they didn’t fly out of nowhere and have little to do with the context of the overall show.
Bean, with Dunn as accomplice, forces performers to make sense of songs that seem to come out of thin air and are usually welcome because they spare us from having to hear another dim-witted word of Bean’s inane book.
It isn’t until Mayo intones “Baby, I’m Yours” that a song seems to come from anything that was said or done before it. Even Cupples’s “He’s a Rebel” seems to come out of nowhere despite all the talk among the women assembled at an surprise bridal shower about how her character, Flo, likes bad boys.
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” is a mess that has no rhythm or balance. Its story is makeshift, its score is expedient, and the Media staging is haphazard and without anything that bonds it or makes it appear to flow evenly.
Let’s take things one at a time.
The premise for the book is plausible. Mayo’s character, Millie, is about to get married. Her mother has thrown her an official shower, the presents from which we see gathered on the bride-to-be’s sofa and coffee table before the lights go up on “Fools.”
One shower isn’t enough for Millie, decides her friend, Sally, played by Rice, so she gathers two other girls, Flo and her cousin, Deedee, who doesn’t know Millie, and knocks on her door for shower number two.
Millie is resistant and wants Sally and company to leave, but Sally is privy to information that makes her think Millie needs extra support and celebration. Not to mention a slew of margaritas, which, frankly I don’t remember being the drink of choice in the early 1960s. But then, if I was expecting fidelity to period from a hack like Bean, I may as well start gathering lettuce to feed the Easter bunny and get an early start on letters to Santa Claus.
The ideas in Bean’s plot are not bad ones. They have the makings of a plausible show with enough drama and enough reasons to sing.
Execution is another matter. Bean keeps his dialogue at the level of middling drivel. Lines have little purpose. They’re just something to say to get through each act and regale the audience with songs they’re supposed to love.
Silly ploys like giving Deedee a sugar addiction that knocks her cold and gives her temporary amnesia register as more stupid and gimmicky than funny or character-defining. Even the talk about men, a staple of any play that features currently single women gathering for a party, is low-grade and cliched. Never, not for a single second, do you care about any of the characters or their stories. Even Millie, who has a problem on her hands, cannot elicit sympathy because the details of her dilemma are so formulaic and delivered so blandly. Issues raised in the second act, a bridal shower for Deedee, fall just as flat. Bean just can’t write anything that’s interesting or involving.
If Dunn’s production was better, if it had a spark of fun or wit, you might say, “So what? I didn’t come here for depth or insight into the almost-married state in the 1960s. I came to hear some old time rock and roll.”
But the production is not fun. Dunn does not have an idea how to make it cute or snappy or how to have it make fun of the book and its hackneyed shallowness.
Rice, Mayo, Cupples, and Rucidlo are at sea. They seem to be saddled with bad material and spotty direction. One of those directions appears to be that they act like cartoon characters, fugitives from “Grease,” with character voices and odd walks. Costumer Whitney Rayl doesn’t even dress them right or appropriately. Does no one at the Media remember the 60s? I can tell Bean doesn’t, but does no one involved in this production?
I felt bad for the actresses. I wanted to gather them and say, “Ladies, we need a game plan. Give the audience a 15-minute break while we discuss real behavior, sincerity even with this albatross of a book, and introductions into songs, whether the script allows logical entrée or not. Rehearsal must have been confined to harmony and choreography. There’s not enough order to the staging to make one think any time was invested it making “Fools” a solid, continuous piece of theater.
Even before Rian’s Sally and the others barge into Millie’s apartment, “Fools” shows signs of trouble. At lights up, Mayo bursts on to the stage singing, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” for no reason. OK, you can surmise it’s the song in her head as she’s gathering and putting away the gifts cluttering her sofa. If that were the case, why do a full-out belting rendition? One would do that in front of a mirror or in the middle of the living room, not while doing a chore. You hum or sing slightly when you’re busy. Mayo’s entrance looked like an attempt at false excitement and engineered liveliness instead of something that would logically occur.
Dunn did not think through the repercussions of his opening choice, especially since we soon learn Millie is not in the mood to sing and really wants a quiet evening at home, without company, to contemplate her marriage and consider the problem Sally will later reveal.
Millie’s wardrobe is also wrong. She is wearing a bathrobe. That’s fine. But on the back of the bathrobe is a big red heart trimmed with lace and emblazoned with “Bride-to-Be.”
Foul! Millie, if she’s true to the glimmers of character Bean deigns to assign, would not wear such a garment. Even if some well-meaning friend or relative gave it to her as a shower gift, she wouldn’t put it on. Not without removing the heart. The joke is lame. It smacks of a good idea at the time, not a stroke of inspiration that is warm, funny, or informative.
Ashli Rian Rice picks up the energy with her arrival. Sally is a whirlwind, a planner who has everything in control. She has brought tequila and a mix to make margaritas. Shots and cocktails will both be on the menu. She has brought another close friend of Millie’s, Flo, and her ditzy cousin, Deedee, and the party might cook.
Unfortunately, the patter Bean writes turns boring fast. It is also more ’80s or ’90s is spirit than it is ’60s. Kinda like the margaritas.
All of a sudden Deedee is swallowing or sucking on anything sweet in Millie’s house, from Hostess-like cupcakes to lollipops. This sets up the addiction gambit. Unfortunately, the staging of Deedee’s binge is wild when it needs to be sly or subtle. Rucidlo quickly launches into the Millie Small hit from 1966, “My Boy Lollipop.” The song has rhythm but not enough content to make it a statement of what anyone feels or a way to express the best traits of a boyfriend. Even when Small did it in her quirky voice, “My Boy Lollipop” was a flapdoodle. In “Fools,” Rucidlo is directed to take the song too fast, a problem that will haunt Dunn’s production. It’s more of an interruption than an entertainment. Given the less than bargain-basement quality of Bean’s script, it’s a sorry day when you can’t appreciate a diversion that pauses it for a while. “My Boy Lollipop” is like an assault. It comes from nowhere and has nothing that makes it worthy of attention. Drivel on top of drivel. We have to hear more about Deedee’s boyfriend and understand Deedee for such a number to work.
Sally’s “It Hurts to Be in Love” and Flo’s “He’s a Rebel” have more context, but they are also dispatched with careless speed and don’t give Rice or Cupples any more chance than Rucidlo had to do something with them. They erupt from nowhere and hang in space for their duration without establishing a purpose. Not only that, they’re played as if the characters are rock and roll singers instead of as characters with information they want to impart to the others. Maybe the musical and vocal arrangement credited, he said loosely, to Jon Newton, are the culprits. If so, Dunn and music director Scott Anthony would have been wiser to ignore or supersede Newton’s dicta than to agree to them. Musical numbers only add to the hodgepodge “Fools” has unsalvageably become. I kept thinking Anthony should have developed some underscoring, as if Millie had some records playing low in the background, to prepare the audience for songs. The way musical numbers are plotted, they come up suddenly and have no grace or build.
The only exception in the first act is Mayo’s rendition of “Baby, I’m Yours,” which is done with the actress/character sitting on a living room chair telling her friends what she would like to say to her fiancé if he was there. Context and measured, careful performance miraculously visit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” You half wonder what happened that made the merry-go-round slow down enough to actually present a musical number as if its was sung by a character and part of a play instead of as an impulsive interlude that made it look as if one of more of the characters was channeling rock and roll performers. “Baby, I’m Yours” is also the first number that makes music theater use of harmonies. It’s like an oasis in a dry, dry desert. Most of all, it makes you wonder why the entire show could not have been conceived with an appropriate pace, correct attention to detail, and will to make a number register with the audience, the people who are supposed to have a story told to them, not thrown at them.
The second act is slightly better in musical presentation. Cupples has consecutive songs, “Hey There, Lonely Boy” and “I Think I’m Going Out of My Head” that give her a chance to impose some discipline on “Fools” and make the numbers pay. Mayo follows with a good rendition of “Hurt So Bad,” and again, you wonder why all of the production could not have been so carefully performed. Harmonies on “Going Out of My Head” also work, but Dunn sabotaged the staging by having Cupples sing down stage left while the others do dance and backup, as in a girl group, upstage center. The way Cupples and the others are placed in relation to each other, you can’t see both at one time. Obviously, Dunn needs a lesson in how the human eye works.
Nothing really can save the Media’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” The cast tries, when allowed, to make a musical sequence pay, but Bean’s dreadful book, Newton’s express-train arrangements, and Dunn’s inability to give “Fools” a pace that keeps the audience comfortable overwhelm any attempt at making this production work. It isn’t even amiable fluff or mindless entertainment. It’s garbage.
Ashli Rian Rice is one game actress. If anyone could, she would bring life and cohesion to the affair as Sally. Rice is energetic and has the most permission to play a character with scope and natural voice and movements. The obstacles are too great for Rice to overcome, but I am grateful to Ashli for providing a character who at least looked as if she may force Bean’s nonsense into focus.
Victoria Mayo is saddled with the sad sack role, and her Millie never musters enough energy to be a central figure. The good news for Mayo is her songs register the truest and most in context. She galvanizes the show for a bit with both “Baby, I’m Yours” and “Hurts So Bad.” She may have been able to do more with the show’s strongest number, Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Positioned though it was to end the first act, and dramatic as Springfield’s song can be, Bean, Newton, or Dunn undercut the number by truncating it. One entire verse is removed. That verse helps the song build. It’s not a throwaway. Of course, it takes taste to know that. Mayo is left to belt half a song, the emotion of the last bars being mitigated by not having the deleted sections to draw from.
Lauren Cupples and Megan Rucidlo are both handicapped by character traits I hope they did not choose. Flo may be awkward and Deedee a little off the wall, but neither is a cartoon, and that’s the way Flo and Deedee are played.
Cupples acts well within the restrictions of her characterization, directions that make it hard to believe Flo exists in real life, but some of the blood is drained from the character by making her more like “Hairspray’s” Penny Pingleton than someone attending a 60s party. Cupples wrestles some redemption when she sings, and her medley in the second act is one of the strongest, most intense passages in a show that desperately needs such sequences.
Megan Rucidlo is stranded the most in left field in terms of direction. Deedee, even though the party honoree in the second act, doesn’t get the chances other characters have to burst past the book and staging via music. Rucidlo does a fine job with a ’90s song, Carol Bayer Sager’s “I Do,” but that constitutes her lone opportunity to shine.
I wish I had more good to say. I flippantly said the show looks as if no effort was given to make it work. I am sure much effort was. Sometimes things go wrong. Dann Dunn did wonders with the Media’s “Spamalot,” a show that moved liked clockwork and was flawless in character definition. It was included on my 2013 Philadelphia Theater Critic’s Award list for Best Productions.
I have seen Mayo and Cupples enough to be aware of the quality of work of which each is capable. I can’t wait to see Rice in a role that lets her loose to show her full ability. It will be overpowering. Rucidlo has a strong voice, and acted well according to the way she has told to play her character. I look forward to seeing her again as well.
Robert White’s set has some nice touches in terms of ’60s decorations. Properties designer Allison Ward shares the credit for that.
“Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” runs through Sunday, March 30 at the Media Theatre, 104 E. State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $42 with discounts for seniors and children age 12 and younger. They can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or going online to www.mediatheatre.org.
Remember, Ann Crumb is Norma Desmond and Elisa Matthews in Betty is “Sunset Boulevard” when it arrives at the Media in April.