All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Fun, energy, and film noir dramatics with a comic take outweigh any silliness or plot liberties taken in “Field Hockey Hot,” Michael Ogborn’s ebullient world premiere musical being given a breathless, hilariously rousing sis-boom-bah production by 11th Hour Theatre Company at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theatre.
Ellie Mooney’s choreography, though rooted in cheerleader moves and front-line hockey defense stances, goes way, way beyond the aerobic, calisthenic motions of most regional theater dance to challenge the “Field Hockey” cast with its vigorous intricacy infused with wit and the realistic appearance of athletes in a game. Megan Nicole O’Brien’s direction goes for large, overstated takes of a kind I often don’t like but that work in Ogborn’s show to bring out the comically melodramatic and manically driven nature of the lead characters. Mooney’s team chant is particularly amusing.
“Over the top” is called for, and O’Brien and Mooney deliver it with extra ham laced with pineapples for tartness and cloves for spice. The 100 minutes or so this musical plays go by in a speed-of-light flash and entertain constantly. Ogborn’s rhythms are always lively and make you feel as if the sheet music’s notes must be running off the page in razzmatazz enthusiasm. The obsessive-compulsive habits of the main characters come through in the music, which adds to the zippy goofiness of this show. Ogborn uses his lyrics to tell stories or to spoof all that goes into über-competitive high school sports. A hockey coach who wants to win a championship to atone for her own brain freeze at a critical time sings about what her team’s victory of would mean “Vicariously.” A Lesbian plays who has a yen for her team’s star goalie moons about her infatuation as she stands where her inamorata stores her game gear “One Locker Away.” A nun reveals some plot-thickening information in “Sister Has a Secret.” The fundraising that helps all amateur sports team is satirized in “Scenes from a Spaghetti Dinner Benefit.” Rodgers and Hammerstein are coyly mocked in the nun’s pseudo-serious counsel, “Field Every Goal.”
In all of his numbers, Ogborn goes for size and musical escalation. The most intimate song gives its performer a chance to belt, show off his or her way with a snide line, and make some sassy dancing moves. Mooney takes her cues to make lollapaloozas out of “Vicariously,” “Field Hockey Hot,” “Stick to It,” “Her-story,” “It’s All Relative,” and “Without You.”
The cast of “Field Hockey Hot” responds to the high octane of Ogborn’s tunes and Mooney’s moves by giving a coach’s beloved 200 percent. Jennie Eisenhower, Alex Keiper, Michael Philip O’Brien, Rob Tucker, and Shannon Remley all perform with bullet-train gusto that leaves room for distinct characterization and loads and loads of fun-conjuring wit. Leah Walton is a reptilian delight as Eisenhower’s nemesis and Ogborn’s villain. Sean C. White is touching and comical as the girl who lusts for her teammate. Alina John is sidesplittingly droll in her send-up of silky-wigged, perfectly made-up television judges. Brendan Norton and Ali Wetzel fill a number of roles with aplomb.
Plot, and even lyrics, don’t make a great difference. “Field Hockey Hot” is a happily exuberant flapdoodle that under O’Brien’s direction becomes a ball of merriment, a delightful diversion that obliterates any care or, heaven forbid, seriousness that may have been on your mind before entering the Adrienne and hearing Dan Kazemi and his band strike up Ogborn’s first perpetual-motion chords.
Jennie Eisenhower is histrionic wildfire as Shipley Barnes, the pert and stylish hockey coach, who as a player 17 years before “Field Hockey Hot” begins, scuttled a national championship match by losing concentration and letting a goal get by her, is determined to lead her current team at the same school to the ultimate title.
For Shipley, a championship for the Applebee Appaloosas is a matter of much-needed, much-coveted redemption. She has not forgiven herself for her 1969 lapse and has to make it up with a 1986 victory.
The big-game lost is the single blot on Shipley’s record. At least in her mind. She is an egotist to the point of narcissism, and a flaw of any kind is something she can’t bear.
Shipley is so self-absorbed that when her goalie is severely injured during some emphatically warned against horseplay in the Lady Appaloosa shower — horseplay showed in shadow with hockey sticks appearing in some suggestive places — she ignores the girl’s pain, traction, and full body cast and talks about what a blow her inability to play is to Shipley’s dream of winning the title at last.
Throughout “Field Hockey Hot,” things that pertain to other characters happen around Shipley, and she takes them as either triumphs or slights depending on how they relate to her. “Me” is her favorite word, and Ogborn has her use it a lot.
Eisenhower seizes every part of her role, and in good Shipley fashion, makes her presence felt when others share stage center with her. More than a decade of roles have made it clear Eisenhower is a talented actress and singer. Thanks to Mooney’s creativity, “Field Hockey Hot” also lets us see she is a lithe, flexible, and nubile dancer. Eisenhower not only has her 80s head moves down, she can boogie with the best of them, her motions always being crisp and precise in a way that meshes with Shipley”s general character.
Though Tucker, Keiper, Remley, and Walton have major parts, Eisenhower anchors this show. Each one of her triple threats is deployed with maximum payoff. As an actress, she takes the attitude of a flesh-and-blood Jessica Rabbit, exuding the allure of a Crawford, Stanwyck, or Lupino at their noir best while having the comic timing of Eve Arden and the self-centered self-possession of Madeline Kahn. It’s as if Eisenhower is channeling Carol Burnett. As a singer, she displays range and an ability to belt shriek-like notes before coming down to earth in a soulful contralto. As a dancer, she’s a dervish. whirling, twisting, bending, and hoofing with flawless brio.
Everything Eisenhower does as Shipley is large. She coaches intensely. She regards obstacles as bagatelles to whisk out of the way with the back of her capable, impatient hand. She coos lines that refer to herself. She passionately tells her team what each game means to her and how they are a representative and embodiment of her. She commands when she needs a favor. She invents when a need a solution. And she does it all with confidence and resolve that goes beyond unstoppable to formidable.
Eisenhower makes Shipley into a powerhouse that blends Calamity Jane with Alexis Carrington. The size and scope of her performance are remarkable. Her consistency and valuable extra advantage as a ceaselessly deft entertainer carry Jennie to personal glory in this show. You can think of “The Wild Party,” “The Last Five Years,” “Forbidden Broadway,” “The Addams Family” and a few more inspired Eisenhower performances. Her flashy turn in “Field Hockey Hot” is like the fusion of them all. As “Field Hockey Hot” seeks life in other regions, Ogborn will be lucky if he comes close to finding a star as versatile as Jennie Eisenhower to lead his show.
That’s the thing about Megan Nicole O’Brien’s production. It so captures of the essence and loopiness of Ogborn’s piece, you hope the show gets the same care in subsequent productions. This kind of comedy is fragile. You have to cover the silliness and plot expediencies with the right one of vaudeville. I wish Michael this astute a production everywhere “Field Hockey Hot” goes.
“Field Hockey Hot” begins with a critical win that advances the Appaloosas to the finals, the championship game against their feared rivals from Regina, Saskatchewan. We see Mooney’s mettle, and Eisenhower’s vim in “All the Way,” as the team envisions national glory. Eisenhower’s Shipley Barnes establishes her “me” theme when she takes her team’s victory as a testament to not only her coaching abilities but as her righteous due on Earth.
Disaster strikes when the Appaloosa goalie, Victoria Hyde-Pierce, incurs her unfortunate mishap. Shipley follows Victoria to the emergency room where Dr. Benson and Nurse Hedges — get it? I told you Ogborn was silly. — describe multiple injuries that require Victoria to be in a full body cast and in traction, with her arms separated from her torso by two foot-long dowels cemented into her forearm from her mid-section.
It isn’t pretty. The bandages engulf all but actress Shannon Remley’s face. You feel as much for Remley having to wearing Amanda Wolff’s cast costume as you do for Victoria for having such complex injuries.
Ogborn, O’Brien, Eisenhower, and Remley find comic dynamite in Victoria’s condition and Shipley’s egotism. To make room to sit on Victoria’s hospital bed, Shipley shoves — not gently moves, shoves! — Victoria’s encased limbs out of her way, causing Remley to moan and grimace in agonizing excruciation. The gambit is repeated several time during the course of the musical, and, gosh darn it, it always works.
With Benson and Hedges making it clear Victoria will not be healed and ready to play within the seven days before the Regina match — Ogborn gets sophomorically facile mileage out of the way he positions “Regina” in his dialogue, trying a bit feebly to generate laughs on the Canadian city’s rhyme/pun value. — Shipley must think of what she can do to supply her team with an equally formidable goalie.
In her desperation to win, she is willing to cheat. She thinks of passing herself off as a teen, something the thirtysomething Eisenhower could probably do in a pinch. She then comes up with the idea of importing a player, enrolling her in Applebee, and passing her off as a long-time student.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why that would be against the rules or unethical to recruit a new student at the last minutel, but for the purposes of “Field Hockey Hot,” which regards its plot in much the way musicals from the 20s and screwball comedies from the 30s did, as a conduit to songs and comedy bits, Ogborn makes flagrant violating of regulations Shipley’s path towards conflict.
That conflict is not only with officials governing high school athletics but with Applebee’s headmistress, Puggy Thatcher, Shipley’s nemesis from student days. Puggy, although her school is on the brink of a great victory, wants Shipley to fail. She wants her forever to bear the disgrace of her 1969 tournament lapse, when all was lost and Shipley became obsessed with making up for her mistake by bringing Applebee a title.
Ogborn will use Puggy in arch-villainess ways throughout “Field Hockey Hot,” and Leah Walton thrives in the role of the evil member of the cast.
Shipley is not totally to blame for her team’s 1969 failure. One of her teammates, and her best friend from high school days, now a nun called Sister George Michael, may have distracted Shipley and caused her error. Played with earnestness by Rob Tucker — a drag nun! Comedy on the hoof! — Sister George is now a headmistress herself, of a parochial academy for orphaned girls. Shipley tells Sister George, to whom she hasn’t spoken for 17 years in spite of their high school closeness, about her plight. While soothing her with the R&H parody, “Field Every Goal,” Sister George tells Shipley about a student of hers who is a tyro of a goalie. Called Mauren Gonzales, with the first syllable, “Gon,” getting the emphasis, this girl is both scholarly and athletic. She looks forward to a Harvard scholarship of the kind Applebee gives to two hockey players every year. Sister George becomes complicit in Shipley’s scheme to adopt Mauren, enroll her in Applebee, choose her for the hockey team, appoint her the goalie, and resume the idea of beating Regina for the championship. Sis-boom-bah!
This is the path taken. Puggy smells the rat and conspires to foil Shipley on a technicality. Sister George Michael becomes dismayed when she finds out Shipley’s house has only two bedroom and that healthy and curious adolescent female Mauren is sharing one of them with Shipley’s healthy and eager male adolescent son, Gavin. One of Shipley’s players continues to pine for the fallen goalie, Victoria. Victoria, meanwhile, is trapped in her plaster prison and traction pulleys.
Mayhem ensues, as Ogborn intended, and O’Brien keeps all at a frothy fever pitch while Eisenhower and Walton overact appropriately, Tucker has fun in his nun’s habit, and Remley grunts and groans under her bandages, White, also in drag, sings a valentine to his character’s Lesbian love, and Michael Philip O’Brien sings out Gavin’s lust, that has become genuine affection, for Mauren.
Alex Keiper, as Mauren, goes through her paces in a snarky, cynical way, but she responds in actual kind to Gavin’s ardor/hormones, and has a competitive spirit that gives Shipley and the Lady Appaloosa confidence.
Nothing in “Field Hockey Hot” is remotely thought-provoking or thematic. Ogborn has planned a goofy entertainment, and O’Brien has serves it up royally on a sterling silver tray that has bicycle horns for tooting and comic steam exploding every few minutes. The musical has the importance of a flea, but it can make you and gives Jennie Eisenhower the opportunity to whoop it up with brio. You have to leave the theater happy and as buoyant energized as the Appaloosas taking their inevitable victory lap. (This is a comedy after all.)
Praise goes to the entire cast. 11th Hour has been building a cadre of fine performers through its wonderful concert series. Tucker, Keiper, Norton, and Remley, who was so touching in “Dogfight” this November, show their talent over again, and it’s good to see them have roles that let them display even more.
Tucker adroitly finds the line between camp and sincerely wise as Sister George Michael who takes her vocation seriously but has a lot of the fun-loving high school girl remaining beneath her wimple. Sister George Michael is, in ways, the smartest in the room, and Tucker shows her intelligence while conveying her devilish knack for scheming. Like Shipley, Sister George has little taste for Puggy, who she knows was the real saboteur in 1969. The chance to get back at her the good Sister decides in worth a bit of confession and penance. Besides, she wants to find a way to get Mauren to Harvard, and field hockey is a possible route.
Although “Field Hockey Hot” is set in 1986, Alex Keiper embodies several types of current teens. You see in Mauren the Goth, the hip city girl polluting the landscape in those hideous Urban Outfitter shmatas, the jock who wants to win and make her opponent wish they’d never challenged her, and the 17-year-old with eyes for a comely lad.
Keiper gives Mauren a discernable toughness that says she is unimpressed and knows the score in any situation she is put. She is a good contrast to the hyper Shipley, the sensible but conspiratorial Sister George, the nyah-ah-ah Puggy, and even the all-jock Victoria. You sort of picture her smoking cigarettes, sipping Scotch, frequenting classic French movies, and reading “The Flamethrowers” while ready to battle any hockey team and throwing cigs and Rachel Kushner aside when a hot and ready guy like Gavin comes a-callin’. I’ve gone way too far in this description, but Keiper made me think of the take-it-or-leave-it type who has lots of interests but finds most people and routine activities a source of ennui.
Shannon Remley is all fierce competitive edge, and overtly responsive Lesbian love interest, before Victoria is relegated to her hospital bed. Ogborn is not beyond borrowing a 20s musicals kind of deus ex machina, so we do see Remley in full game mode when Shipley’s reputation is most on the line.
Remley has a naturalness that served her well in “Dogfight” and “Field Hockey Hot.”
Brendan Norton seems to have fun acting. He smiles nicely as both the TV reporter Chinchillo Carillo and Doctor Hedges, showing his zest for Ogborn’s comedy while making sure his audience shared it.
Leah Walton exudes snobbish haughtiness as Puggy. She looks down on Shipley, whose life is field hockey and who, though working for a school, has the intellectual interest of a wildebeest. While always looking smug and buttoned-up, Walton shows the joy Puggy gets from being diabolical and from seeing a way she and Applebee can be rid of Shipley for good.
Alina John steals the stage when she appears in black robes and long, silky, gingery hair as the hockey official who will rule on whether Shipley has committed a rule violation, Judge Wanda Bootsy Woods.
John skitters with holy roller abandon across the stage as she tells Wanda’s philosophy in “It’s All Relative.” She and Eisenhower do a mean duet in which the ladies do that Egyptian-like twist of their heads from their shoulder and gyrate their hips in pure 80s style.
John’s parody of the paternity court and other TV judges is inspired, and her singing and dancing are tops.
Michael Philip O’Brien gets that keen look in his eye the minute he sees Keiper’s Mauren and hears she will be bunking in his room. O’Brien, as is his wont, also sings a wide of range of notes with ease and power
Sean C. White is sweetly bashful as Kennedy Cox, the Lady Appaloosa who has a crush on her goalie, Victoria. The demure nature White gives Kennedy is affecting in addition to being funny.
Ali Wetzel spells things out as she sees them as Nurse Hedges, called Nurse Ratched in one scene by Shipley. She is also among the most ferocious players you see on the Appaloosa line when she plays hockey team member Dodo Van Dyke.
All of the women, and men, are enlisted to be part of the Lady Appaloosa. Ellie Mooney has made their roles particular fun with all of the great dance moves she’s designed for them. Costumer Amanda Wolff does an excellent throughout, but her best move is the fur uniforms she devised for when the ensemble is playing Applebee’s Canadian challengers.
Jan Paul Guzzone’s set is purposeful while leaving lots of room for Mooney to work her choreographic magic. Dan Kazemi and his band are perfect.
“Field Hockey Hot,” production by 11th Hour Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, March 22, at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Monday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $37 to $32 and can be obtained by calling 267-987-9865 or by visiting www.11thhourtheatrecompany.org.