BY JOHN MONAGHAN
DETROIT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
I usually approach musical productions at the Hilberry Theatre with more than a little trepidation. Though some of the students in Wayne State University’s graduate theater program are born to sing and dance, others merely get an A for effort. There’s a reason the company has mounted only four musicals in its nearly 50-year history.
“A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine” plays better than most. The first half of the show, a tune-filled tribute to 1930s movies, is as entertaining as its performers are sometimes lumbering. The second half, which combines Marx Brothers-like mayhem with plot elements from Anton Chekhov, is a wacky and often-inspired exercise in comic timing.
During the “Day in Hollywood” portion of the musical, smiling ushers in red uniforms and pillbox hats walk us through popular songs of the period as they celebrate and spoof Hollywood’s golden age. “Ain’t We Got Fun,” “Too Marvelous for Words” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop” are delivered with earnest precision and enlivened by tap-heavy choreography from Jill Dion, who draws inspiration from Tommy Tune’s 1980 Broadway version.
Lorelei Sturm, Alec Barbour and Andrew Papa take the leads on many of the 17 songs, nearly half pulled from the Richard Whiting songbook. (A framed portrait of the composer floats down from the rafters like a Tin Pan Alley angel.)
One clever set piece involves only the dancing feet of recognizable performers like Bela Lugosi, Judy Garland and Tom Mix. Trying to figure out who’s who is a big part of the scene’s appeal.
Red velvet curtains and Oriental accents highlight designer Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s set, a representation of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. However, the misspelling of Fred Astaire’s name (the final “e” is missing from his cement signature) didn’t help me willingly suspend disbelief.
The show’s second half, “A Night in the Ukraine,” is much better than the first and features actors, many of whom we’ve met earlier, re-creating a Marx Brothers movie that never was. Groucho, Harpo and Chico actually began their careers on the stage, and at times in this production, you get a sense of what their manic energy must have been like live.
The plot, loosely based on Chekhov’s “The Bear,” involves money owed to shyster lawyer Serge B. Samovar (Papa, in full Groucho crouch and mustache) by the rich and newly widowed Mrs. Pavlenko (Margaret Dumont by way of Sturm). She enlists her Chico- and Harpo-like assistants (Dave Toomey and Carollette Phillips) to get rid of him.
As spot on as director Michael J. Barnes and his cast are in terms of timing, the performances are sometimes hit-and-miss. Papa works the audience with cleverly scripted, innuendo-filled asides, while Phillips approaches silent clown Harpo with child-like mischief and wonder, especially when spinning a tricycle wheel to play the ubiquitous harp solo. Toomey’s Chico sports a bada-bing Italian accent that’s better suited to a mob movie than a Marx vehicle, but it didn’t prevent me from laughing loudly at the rapid-fire gags he delivered.