All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Michael Ogborn is often a master of loopy fun, and he knows without question both the genre he’s emulating, haphazardly plotted romantic musicals of the 1920s, and the city he’s comically honoring, Philadelphia, but his new musical, “The Three Maries,” given a world premiere at Prince Music Theater, looks more like a work in progress than a finished or polished piece.
While frothy in Ogborn’s signature way, which includes happy, snappy tunes with humorous, ironic lyrics, and in key with the ’20s penchant for never letting logic get in the way of an upbeat story with a happy ending, “The Three Maries” is too neat and efficient in its plot line — Things happen too easily, and complications engender no worry or danger. — and too scattershot in its presentation to do more than entertain sporadically and give people who know their Philadelphiana an occasional chuckle.
Peter John Rios’s production means well, but it lacks cohesion. The staging has no discernable rhythm and scenes seem to emanate suddenly from everywhere. Stories in ’20s musical are, by convention, slight to the point of delightfully inane, but Rios never creates a pace that involves us in more than the rudiments of Ogborn’s yarn about a plain, working class mother and daughter named Big Marie and Little Marie and a 1926 visit to Philadelphia of Marie, Queen of Romania. The Maries and other characters seem to be racing through their lines and mistaking speed, a la Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in “His Girl Friday,” with careful comic delivery, which Russell and Grant managed in spite of their impressive capacity for words per minute.
Rios’s production never settles. It steamrolls along without taking time to let characters establish themselves as more than parodic figures. Kathy Deitch makes great headway as Big Marie, and Mary Martello enjoys her royal waving as Marie of Romania, but even their superior knack for comedy cannot make you care for any of the characters, or their fates, in more than casual passing. No one on the Prince stage seems real, and nothing that happens to them seems to matter.
This is not Ogborn’s fault. He’s provided a decent story that can be told with some texture. It Rios’s problem. He went for ease instead of care. He didn’t establish the subtlety that makes even material as blatantly unsubtle as Ogborn’s work at more than a surface level. You want to like “The Three Maries” more than it’s possible to do at the Prince. The potential of the show comes through, but the potential is never realized. At best, the production could be praised as “cute” or entertaining enough,” but it doesn’t have tangible substance enough to take it to the next level. Or any level that suggests sharpness or quality. It takes its “screwball” nature too literally and gives its audience nothing to watch or savor. A conversation between Deitch’s and Martello’s Maries in the second act is the closest Rios comes to letting a genuine conversation have some space to play out in a manner than doesn’t seem rushed, tossed off, or overly frantic. There’s a lot of entertainment value in “The Three Maries,” but it’s all hidden in posing and hijinks. Rios’s production has no art and, hence, no heart.
Even the silliest or most elementary plot needs to be played as if it’s serious, as if the characters and what happens to them matter. “The Three Maries” is a fairy tale of sorts. It’s subtitled “A Philadelphia Phable.” The lyrics of the opening song even tell you the play will be a little “Pygmalion,” a little “Cinderella.” Knowing that doesn’t absolve “Maries” from having to creating some semblance of atmosphere. In spite of sets that momentarily define specific places, “The Three Maries” seems to come at you from the blue. Hints are dropped about what matters to individual characters, but even these hints don’t always have a payoff. Ogborn is intent on making fun of the Philadelphia accent, and the Philadelphian’s way of having no regard for rank and bristling when anyone tries to get too uppity or snooty. His jokes and jibes are good, but they are one-note. Even the lessons Little Marie takes to get rid of her Philadelphia nasality, uvulated “l’s,” and flat, unarticulated vowel sounds, seem too fast, too clipped and efficient for their comedy to play on stage as fully and solidly as it does in Ogborn’s imagination. We hear lots of good ideas, and many are wasted because of slapdash staging and little follow-through.
For “The Three Maries” to work, Rios and Ogborn have to calm down and consider how to turn good theatrical ideas into palpable theater. Right now, “The Three Maries” looks like an advanced workshop. You get a glimpse of how good the finished product might, but the show is not there yet. Too much is incomplete, and too much is suggested in jokes but unrealized in actions characters can take to make moments, situations, and complications register as important, to them as well as to the audience.
I hope “The Three Maries” is honed, rethought, and produced in an evolved form. Currently, “cute” is the best anyone can say about the show. The only thing the production has to recommend it now is Deitch’s unrelenting, purely Philadelphia take on Big Marie, and that needs better framing and more solidity.
Let’s look at the show piece by piece.
The beginning has promise. The main pieces of a Mummers string band are rehearsing. The banjo, accordian, and brass strike the right New Year’s Day, Broad Street chord. The sound is tinny and authentic. You get a feeling, however brief it will remain, you are in safe, knowing hands.
But the Mummers music ends abruptly and is never heard again. There’s a wonderful second act number, appropriately called “The Mummer’s Strut” that teaches the rudiments of doing the famous bouncy, hand-raising step so familiar to Philadelphians. There’s many references to Mummers and to Little Marie’s Dad who leads a brigade, makes costumes, and holds Mummers confabs in his Kensington row house. Mummers music, however, begins and ends in the first two minutes of “The Three Maries.” Ogborn may want to consider adding more string band passages to his score. (Maybe the Mummers can play a tune from one of his earlier pieces.) The Mummers sound coming in at the top and never being heard from again is indicative of the work “The Three Maries” needs in general. A taste of a good thing is not enough. Jokes and ideas need to be played to their logical conclusion, not introduced and abandoned. Especially when, as with the Mummers music, the jokes and ideas have possibilty.
The first scene takes place at 6 a.m. Big Marie tells her husband’s bandmates to scram from their all-night session so she can make breakfast and send Little Marie off to work at City Hall.
Deitch establishes Big Marie’s Philadelphian ways immediately. There’s no ceremony or artificial politeness in the way she tells the Mummers to leave. Deitch also sports one of the thickest Philadelphia accents ever and does so with expertise (and prideful native glee). She is so perfect in her patois, a visitor seeing “The Three Maries” might need subtitles to comprehend some of her vowels elisions.
Deitch’s Big Marie also sets up some plot details that will inform Ogborn’s entire story. Big Marie objects to Little Marie working. She says, as a Philadelphia mother in 1926 would, Little Marie should find a husband rather than seek a career. After all, Little Marie is age 23 and not getting any younger. Big Marie thinks it looks bad for a woman to work and wants her daughter to concentrate on meeting a man to marry.
Little Marie is a tad more modern. She enjoys her job working for a municipal events planning office that gets too little work to justify its existence. Little Marie’s boss, Mr. Waterhouse, is at wit’s end to think how to sustain his office and the cushy political patronage position that comes with it.
Then great news comes. Queen Marie of Romania, in 1926 a grand international figure and a granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, is making Philadelphia her first stop on a tour of the United States. Waterhouse’s department will have to plan receptions and banquets and all kinds of activities. Of course, Little Marie proves to be invaluably gifted and natural in organizing everything.
By now, several jokes are in play. You’re interested but not involved or invested in the characters and their individual dilemmas.
The hecticness of planning for the Queen’s visit, a comic departure for Waterhouse and his staff, is dwarfed by other plot details Ogborn introduces. To make arrangements suitable to royalty, Little Marie has to call Philadelphia’s best hotels, florists, caterers, etc. When she does, every one she rings hangs up the minute they hear her voice.
Ogborn’s gambit is the hang-ups have to do with Little Marie’s wretched accent. She can barely say “flowers” (“flars” is Philadelphian) let alone order some.
The idea is a good one. It fits right in with Ogborn’s overall intentions and fulfills the “Pygmalion” promise from the opening number. The problem is the execution.
Though we eventually see what’s happening, we’re not sure why exactly the mâitre d’ at the Bellevue Stratford or receptionist at some other facility is being rude to Little Marie. Rios has not established the snobbery Little Marie might encounter based on her Kensington phrasing. “Room” has two standard pronunciations in English, but none of them sound like the “rhee-ume” Little Marie says she wants to book.
Some set-up or bigger reaction from the snobs is needed. A good joke dies on the vine because there was no theatrical preparation for it. We are left to divine why everyone treats Little Marie so shabbily. We are appalled rather than amused at the Bellevue manager’s behavior. It registers as wrong and without purpose. Yes, Mr. Waterhouse has mentioned Marie’s speech pattern, but nothing has been done to relate it to the spate of unaccepted calls she’s making (and Big Marie’s accent is much worse). We are left to make our own conclusions, which eventually we do, but by then the joke has fizzled. We say, “Oh, that was funny” instead of laughing. Rios has robbed the moment of impact. It’s like laughing 20 seconds after a stand-up’s punch line.
OK, so the snubbed Little Marie realizes what’s going on and becomes determined to leave Philadelphia’s charming “a’s,” “o’s,” and “u’s” (not to mention “youse”) behind and learn more rounded, dignified speech.
Ogborn isn’t so cheap as to turn Little Maries into a Bryn Mawr debutante with Hepburn-like diction, but he and Rios make her transition from “a he-ohgie” and a “kee-o-oak” into ” a hoagie and a Coke” in less than an afternoon. All three songs having to do with Little Marie graduating to standard, listenable tones are fun, but the speed in which she goes from Miss “Fulldullfyah” to a precursor of Grace Kelly, borders on the miraculous.
Unfortunately, the most real comic hay “The Three Maries” reaps from the accent gimmick comes when Little Marie tries to teach Big Marie what she’s mastered, and Big Marie can’t hear the difference.
A lot magically gets resolved in ’20 musicals, but “The Three Maries” turns magic into heavenly intervention. Little Marie barely makes an effort, and she’s cured of “wooder” and “cawh-fee” forever.
Little Marie’s work does not go unrewarded. For doing such a great job with the various arrangements for Queen Marie of Romania, she is given tickets to the reception. Two tickets, so she can take Big Marie as her guest.
Ogborn leaves rooms for a lot of jokes about class, as in fish out of water, but he blessedly leaves them to a minimum. His second act, which plays better, is built on coincidence.
Big Marie wants Little Marie to get married. Queen Marie has invited a distant nephew, Count Frederick of some European locality, to accompany her on her American tour for the sole purpose of finding him a wife.
Little Marie’s boyfriend, Moon, is always in and out of jail –in during the play — for petty crimes, so she is open to meeting someone new, for her own sake in addition to pleasing her mother. Count Frederick, like Moon played by Jeffrey Coon, has some interesting hobbies that keep him from looking too hard for romance.
For one thing, he collects accents. Coon goes through a litany of foreign and regional sounds to show his Higgins-like expertise (or is Sid Caesar his model?) in local linguistics. The Philadelphia accents almost knocks him off his feet.
Frederick’s other interest is the accordion, which he plays for amusement. Irony prevails because Moon, the incarcerated member of Little Marie’s father’s band, plays the accordion, and the troupe could use a replacement.
Frederick, through royalty, and Little Marie, a commoner, hit it off. Even lame plot conflicts like the presence of sugar daddy collector, Penny Wanapacker, can’t thwart the arrow with which Cupid has knit Marie and Frederick’s hearts.
Queen Marie turns out to be quite the egalitarian. A bride for Frederick is more important than blood. Big Marie, of course, is thrilled. We can see Ogborn knows how to plot and does it well, but as charming as the second act of :The Three Maries” is compared to the first, many of the same problems of establishing feelings and events beyond a surface level prevail.
Quick complication and quicker solution are once again a problem. It isn’t that additional material is necessary. It’s that the dialogue and plot that exists has to be played more carefully, with more attention to informing and winning the affection of the audience rather than whisking them through a story, sweet or not. “The Three Maries” can be compact. It should not feel like a whirlwind. You get the impression kids are improvising next steps in a schoolyard game called “The Three Maries” more than the feeling you’re watching a professional theater piece.
Most of this has to do with Rios’s inattention to details. Some is a matter of economy. The Prince stage is not that big, most set pieces, such as Big Marie’s stove and Queen Marie’s throne-like chair, are cluttered upstage and towards the right. The setting are jumbled. They look as if they are on top of each other, and no lasting definition of place is established. You can still see Big Marie’s kitchen when Little Marie is in her office at City Hall, an office that looks skimpy enough. There’s no opulence to this production. Mummers fancy outfits on mannequins don’t add all of color necessary. Even Thom Weaver’s bright, and often festive lighting doesn’t make all cheerful enough. “The Three Maries” looks as if it’s being played in a rehearsal room instead of on a full and functional set.
This lack of décor hurts the production. It adds to the impression that things are slapdash and is yet one more impediment to giving the show the texture it so sorely needs to be the show Ogborn envisioned.
Among elements that have to be rethought for any subsequent production is putting sets on casters to roll out when needed to give the stage area a complete feel and a sense of specific location. All of “The Three Maries,” even the banquet scene, seems to be happening in a void.
Main plots seem dashed off, so side plots, like Mr. Waterhouse’s affair with Penny Wanapacker and his wife’s learning of it, have little impact.
Faults outweigh assets in this production. That’s a shame because the assets are so many.
Idiotic as Ogborn’s plot is, it fits in with the ’20s mode when song, dance, one-liners, and sight gags were the draw, and the story was an afterthought. Ogborn’s book is better than most of its ’20s models.
What’s missing is turning the characters into full humans. Even Deitch and Martello remain essentially caricatures. Others are downright cartoonish. The only one who seems genuine flesh-and-blood is Big Marie’s husband and Little Marie’s father, Banjo Eddie, played with convincing ease by John Monforto. Ogborn doesn’t have to rewrite as much as Rios and producers, Julianna Schauerman and Monica Horan Rosenthal, have to reconceive the way they want their show to look and play.
Right now, the production comes off as amateurish in spite of the acting supplied by Deitch, Martello, Coon, and Monforto. The talent is present. The script is sound. Ogborn’s music is jaunty, even leaving room for a ballad, and has some sharp lyrics. A more disciplined, thoughtful production is what’s required.
Oh, and one major reconsideration. As detailed as I like to be, I try to keep from telling playwrights how to write. I fear my self-control will not hold. Remember I said Count Frederick is sincere in his affection for Little Marie, finds the Philadelphia accent endearing, and can supply the missing accordion to Banjo Eddie’s band? Doesn’t that militate to Frederick becoming Freddy and staying in Philadelphia, marrying Little Marie, encouraging her to recover her lapsed accent, a la Big Marie, and becoming a Mumme
Comic logic says ‘yes.’ Ogborn has all of the elements needed for his happy ending in his foreshadowing and doesn’t bring them together in the end. Huh? Why? (Maybe Ogborn needs a little less “Pygmalion” and more “Major Barbara!”)
Ideas abound, and ideas can flourish, but only if something is done to make at least the trappings of “The Three Maries” more substantial and realistic. Within context, of course.
Ogborn is versed in all things Philadelphia, so besides the accent and the Mummers, of which we can use more, we hear about scrapple, Tastykake, cheese steaks, pretzels with mustard, Lit Brothers, and other local goodies.
When they’re not barked or breezed through, Ogborn offers a lot of slick one-liners, including some that play off of previous lines or give literal answers to figurative questions. The best of the lyrics follow suit, although several of the songs, all tuneful, are basic entertainment that relate a simple sentiment or tell a story.
Rios seems to have been rushed as a director, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I was told changes were fast and furious in the weeks leading to performance, and the helter-skelter look was more from just getting scenes staged than from inattention about tone or texture.
He is much more laudable as a choreographer. “The Three Maries” comes to life when people are dancing, ’20s steps being some fun. “The Mummer’s Strut,” towards the end of the show, is the best number, but others give the show zing it desperately needs.
Thom Weaver’s set seems uncharacteristically cramped into upstage corners. You always know where you are, but you get no sense of place, and nothing on the set, not even the Mummers mannequins, tells you much about the characters.
Janus Stefanowicz’s clothes in general are fine, but I was stunned to see Janus’s credit after looking at the dress, a shirtwaist print on a light yellow or mid-beige background with a bright blue rounded collar, that Little Marie wore to work. I thought I was looking at a frowsy housecoat. The dress may appear in many a Wanamaker’s or Gimbel’s ad from 1926, but I can’t imagine anyone who would buy it, wear it, or think it was nice enough for an office job at City Hall. The Chrysler Building gown Little Marie wears to the ball is better, at least after Rachel Brennan as Little Marie puts in on — It looks terrible on its mannequin. — does better.
Rachel Brennan is likeable as Little Marie, but she is the one most injured by the speed of Rios’s production. She never has the time to endear herself to the audience. We never care whether she gets a husband. This Marie doesn’t seem romantic enough to think much about marriage either. Brennan plays her as a plain Jane with a purpose to make her own living and doesn’t show many of the winsome signs you find in most ’20s heroines.
Kathy Deitch is a comic gem. Her timing is spot on, and she loves sporting those grating Philly sounds. Deitch’s accent is, in many ways, the star of Ogborn’s show. Interest spikes when Deitch is on stage. A new energy is apparent. It Is hard to imagine “The Three Maries” without her.
Mary Martello needs little provocation to clown in real life, so she makes the most of playing a make-believe queen in “The Three Maries.” To Martello’s credit, she knows how to go sooooo far yet not overdo. Also, while Queen Marie comments on the provincial quaintness of Philadelphians, a trait we’ve thankfully outgrown, Martello never gives her a hint of snobbery or hauteur. She’s just another Philly Marie among the bunch.
Jeffrey Coon is his usually congenial self as Count Frederick and seems to have fun as the larcenous, alcohol-loving Moon. Now, we just have to get Frederick using his accordion skills in the Mummers Parade.
John Monforto was one actor who never looked as if he as acting. His Banjo Eddie is pure Philly guy, and Monforto has Stallone in him enough to get the natural male manners of the Philadelphian down pat.
Paul L. Nolan makes a nice comic foil as Mr. Waterhouse. Ogborn would help Mindy Dougherty by making the character of Penny Wanapacker a scooch more subtle. Deirdre Finnegan uses the hauteur Martello eschews as Mrs, Waterhouse, whose first name in Dorcas. (Now that’s Philadelphian!)
My favorite scene and joke in “The Three Maries” is when Little Marie shows her father a picture of the gown she wants in a magazine, and the Mummers whip it up for her overnight — marabou, feathers, glitter, sequins, bangles, and all. (That’s really Philadelphian…and true!)
Michael Ogborn means “The Three Maries” as a valentine to his beloved hometown. He sees it running for years like “Shear Madness” (which found its feet in Philadelphia) does in Boston and “Beach, Blanket, Babylon” plays in San Francisco. “The Three Maries” is more structured, more involved show than the other two. It has the makings of an actual play or musical, rather than a jokefest or lampooning revue, but it has the potential to be what Ogborn wants.
Only not now. The booking at the Prince shows the drawing board as the next destination. The script, though good, needs honing, and some gambits need lengthening. Frederick’s position at the end of the piece has to be refined. Mostly, thought must be given to the physical production, the emptiness of which added to keeping “The Three Maries” from establishing a personality, gaining a rhythm, and being a show that seems more suited as camp night out with friends rather a polished piece ready for a discerning audience.
“The Three Maries,” produced by No Attytude Productions, runs through Sunday, January 10, at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $52 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-422-4580 or by visiting www.princetheater.org.