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Herringbone — Flashpoint Theatre at Off-Broad Street Theatre

Herringbone == interiorAll hail Ben Dibble!

“Tour de force” is too light a praise to let it suffice to encompass all this brave, virile, agile, expressive triple threat performer offers audiences in his superb, stupendous, thoughtful, outrageous, skillful, artistic turn as a dozen or so characters in the musical “Herringbone” for Philadelphia’s Flashpoint Theatre.

How we keep Dibble in Philadelphia I’ll never know! One look at his work on the Off-Broad Street stage, and any producer worth his mettle would whisk him off to Broadway before you could say Acela or even choo-choo!

Dibble not only sings and dances with authority and aplomb, he changes his distinctive face to create a panoply of charactrers, moods, attitudes, and reactions that make “Herringbone’s” story live and elicit an emotional pull.

Physically, he almost trumps what he does dramatically, making clean vertical leaps from floors to surfaces, doing a half-cartwheel using the corner of a steamer trunk as his takeoff point, and assaying a number of dances with style that should convince Tom Bergeron to sign him for “Dancing with the Stars” if that Broadway producer doesn’t get to him first.

Dibble is not alone is making “Herringbone” such an exciting, vivacious achievement. He is finely directed by Bill Fennelly and brilliant choreographed by Jenn Rose. Dan Kazemi, playing a character named Thumbs Dubois, at the piano is a partner in crime, abetting Dibble in several significant ways.

And did I mention that Dibble also takes a turn at the piano, and does quite well?

Well, it’s true. His and Kazemi’s four-hand duet would be a highlight of “Herringbone” if Fennelly’s production wasn’t so crammed to the gills with highlights.

Dibble personifies the actor’s art. He handles any challenge, dramatic, choreographic, or gymnastic, without seeming to exert the slightest effort or wink in self-consciousness. He meets the demands of “Herringbone” head-on, always staying on pace and always keeping his audience as interested in the story by Tom Cone as they are in his display of performance bravado or the clever musical numbers devised by Skip Hennon and Ellen Fitzhugh.

I have seen “Herringbone” at least five times previously, including its original off-Broadway production starring David Rounds, and while I have always admired the lead performance, Rounds’s or B.D. Wong’s, who did the show in Philadelphia and earned both my local and international awards for his work, I historically found the piece strange or labored.

Not this time. Dibble, Fennelly, Rose, Kazemi, and assistant director Georgie Manera managed to engross me in every detail of Cone’s script. More than that, they were able to move me. I felt for George, the character from which all of “Herringbone” springs, in the last instant when the eight-year-old is desperate to have some respite from a year that has to be and remain the wildest, most influential, and most memorable of his life.

Dibble and henchmen cut through what seems like contrived strangeness, and Gothic tale for Gothic sake, to give weight and interest to Cone’s story about a murdered vaudeville hoofer who inhabits a talented boy’s body to exact revenge and get his chance at the big-time and the big money of Hollywood.

“Herringbone” is set in 1929 and touches on the Great Depression, the idea that culture pays during hard times, and the birth of talking cinema at a time when most industries were retrenching or grinding to a halt.

Dibble not only astounds with his various feats of derring-doo. He creates the comedy and pathos needed to make what he’s doing more than a colossal vaudeville turn and into a complete, bona fide play that benefits from his bounty of skills but makes it story potent. Dibble shows the delights and horrors inherent in “Herringbone” and how moving one’s feet and attaining stardom may not be entirely worth the sacrifices one has to agree to in order to get ahead.

“Herringbone” proves to be good, but Dibble remains the attraction because he is superb. His dexterity with objects, his flawless ease with props, his ability to juggle, to catch, and even to put on eyeliner or tie a standard bow tie without a mirror compounds the admiration one has for his impressive character interpretations and execution.

The man is simply a wonder.

He makes “Herringbone” an event, one the lucky will catch before the show folds on July 27.

“Herringbone” begins the small town of Demopolis, Alabama in 1929 when the Depression has placed three generations of a family in a near state of destitution. A wealthy brother/uncle dies and gives them hope of an inheritance, but the entire bequest amounts to an automobile and some sage advice the father of the family, Arthur, values so much, he tacks it on his bathroom wall. (Dibble even mimes the tacking while sound effects are heard from the band area.)

The youngest in the family, George, age 8, practices for a competition in which he has to write and recite a speech about what being an American means to him. The boy wins a precious $25 bond bestowed by a famous vaudevillian who tells George’s parents it would be worth their while to give the lad dramatic lessons. From him, of course.

George proves to be a dancing marvel. His toes never stop moving, and he takes to all kinds of steps, leaps, pratfalls, and hijinks. Dibble shows us all of them with his nimble strength and skill.

Any investment made in George seems bound to pay off. His parents buy him an adult suit, made from cloth with a herringbone pattern, and determine to see how far George can go on the vaudeville stage.

The complication is George has help in learning complicated routines and exhibiting show business prowess.

His body has been entered by a former vaudevillian who was killed in what was made to look like a flaw in a theater routine. He was supposed to be caught mid-air by a partner who feigned distraction and let him fall to his death.

This late hoofer longs for the big time and to avenge his murder. George is his conduit to both. “Herringbone” goes from being a story about a little boy who seems to have talent to a ghost tale about the aspirations of an ambitious man stopped in his prime. A cynical, hard-living man as well.

Dibble has to juggle many characters, but his hardest and most impressive task is in dividing the vengeful vaudevillian from the little boy. This becomes particularly interesting when the hoofer has disputes with George’s parents, traveling to Hollywood with George in the car inherited from the uncle. It also takes on meaning when the ghost, Lou, wants to behave like an adult, e.g. having a drink or having sex with a woman who is flummoxed enough by seeing an eight-year-old while being seduced and bedded by a grown man whose corpus cannot be seen.

Others in Dibble’s repertory are George’s mother, father, grandmother, and aunt; the vaudeville star who trains him for the stage, the lawyer who reads the uncle’s will, a clothing store owner, various clerks and assistants, and the woman Lou lures to a hotel room.

Dibble gives each character definition and goes through a full catalog of facial expressions and gestures to endow each with an individual personality, posture, and way to expressing him- or herself. The actor’s face is as pliable as his torso and legs, and he can convey any emotion, mood, or motivation by adjusting his eyes, changing the way he smiles, or using his posture. You almost feel as if you’re watching a master class in how to act any character in any situation. The variation is that crisp, the speed and certainty with which Dibble adjusts that virtuoso.

Movement is supreme in Fennelly’s staging. He has Dibble careening all around the set in constant motion that never gives Cone’s plot a chance to flag.

Dance is a crucial part of “Herringbone’s” movement, and Dibble is entertainingly debonair as he assays a tango, a waltz, a tap number, and a series of razzmatazz routines Rose sets.

Kennon and Fitzhugh’s music has an old-time feel to it. Many of the number are ironic. Others are geared to show all of the characters. Some, and possibly the best are meant as vaudeville entertainment, “Little Mister Tapping Toes” being the most stylistically precious of those. The opening and closing number of the show also registers and has you leaving the Off-Broad Street Theatre humming about “an unforgettable year.” That’s because Kennon’s music is tuneful, and Fitzhugh’s lyrics have more interesting to say than I remember from past productions.

That’s what surprised me the most, that “Herringbone’s” convoluted and, at times, ugly script did not turn in on itself and become tedious or untastefully gross.

Again, I credit that to Dibble for making us care about George, and to some extent, his mother, and for making whatever material he had at hand pointed and dramatic.

“Herringbone” is a workout for Dibble, and while his vim seems limitless, you can see him losing a few pounds per performance in perspiration. I felt bad for him when, towards the end of the show, he has to don a three-piece suit.

Costuming was simple but meant a lot to the production. Kathleen Geldard had Dibble doing an eighth of the show is his underwear. Another five eighths was done with Dibble wearing a simple strapped (wifebeater) undershirt with the baggy pants associated with vaudeville comedy and suspenders he could tuck his thumbs under when playing a lawyer or George’s father. When it comes time for George/Lou to wear a suit, Geldard chooses an especially flamboyant herringbone pattern (different from the classy fabric chosen by George’s father) offset by red vest and red bow tie over a white shirt. Dibble changes shoes from comfortable looking bucks fitted with taps for patent-leather two tones in black and white.

One clever, clever gimmick is to have the young George represented by a mannequin’s torso who is dressed in a herringbone suit and the black and white shoes of the kind we will later see. Dibble puts his head over the doll’s dressed body, and the result is funny, creative, and entertaining. Sort of like a miniature, or one of those pictures where people stick their heads through holes cut out over an period outfit. (Kudos to prop designer Alice Yorke if this was her idea.) In addition to all else, Dibble is delicately exact in handling material and makes sure all the clothing fit the mannequin just so.

Thom Weaver’s set looks like a backstage with ropes rigged all around, a work light, a dressing room table laden with make-up, and steamer trunks for costumes, props, and to serve as a platform on which and from which Dibble can leap and dance up a storm.

In addition to being a worthy partner, in both dialogue and song, for Dibble, Dan Kazemi plays a lively, expressive piano and is backed up well by Lee Morrison on drums and Joshua Neale on bass.

Praise can be heaped on many, and lavishly, for Flashpoint’s production of “Herringbone.” The person who does the heavy lifting and carries the day in every conceivable way is Ben Dibble who did everything but swallow fire and prepare a soufflĂ©. I’d bet neither of those tasks would daunt or distract him.

“Herringbone,” produced by Flashpoint Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, July 27 at Off-Broad Street Theatre, 1636 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with discounts for students and seniors and can be obtained by calling 267-997-3312 or by going online to http://www.flashpointtheatre.org.

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