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Adrift in Macao, a CurtainUp review

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A CurtainUp Review
Adrift in Macao
Christopher Durang's Film Noir Musical Drifts to Manhattan

 Michelle Ragusa and Orville Mendoza in  Adrift in Macao
Michelle Ragusa and Orville Mendoza in Adrift in Macao. (Photo: James Leynse)
Playwright-lyricist Christopher Durang's and composer Peter Melnick's Adrift in Macao — that's pronounced mah-cow— has landed at Primary Stages with all but but one of the main players from the Philadelphia premiere aboard, as well as the director and designers (lighting design excepted). Except for the usual changes during a move from one venue to another (mostly re-positioning) the songs are also the same. The current theater has a handy little balcony at stage right for the five member band headed by musical director Fred Lassen.

I was hoping that in the time between Kathryn Osenlund's review (see below) and mine that this musical film noir parody would have sharpened its wit so that it would set off the LOL trigger more often. However, I found that, while Durang has hit all the film noir B-movie bases described in Kathryn's review, this spoof of the Chandler ouevre and Carmen Miranda and Dorothy Lamour movies crossed with Casablanca has a somewhat derivative feel and its lyrics and music tend to go in one ear and right out the other. The ten-year-old Gun Metal Blues immediately comes to mind. It too had a fun Chandler-esque atmosphere and plot and fairly forgettable songs. Given its three-member cast and easy to mount production values it has nevertheless shown up at regional theaters since I saw it Off-Off Broadway. (LA production & NJ production). Adrift in Macao, on the other hand, is not as easy to mount. It calls for seven actors and fairly elaborate production values. In fact, to see all this glitz (there's even smoke rising from the stage) and a modest amount of dancing packed into the miniscule playing area of the 59E59 Main Stage contributes considerably to the sense of anything goes and is a tribute to Sheryl Kaller's directing skills, Christopher Gattelli's space-aware choreography, the show's designers — and, of course, the game performers who tackle the noirish archetypes with everything they've got — especially Michelle Ragusa and Orville Mendoza both of whom have impeccable comic flair.

My own rather lukewarm response notwithstanding, if like Durang and Melnick, you're mad for old movies and easy to spot referential dialogue and lyrics, you might just want to drift over to 59E59St for this ninety minute B-musical ride through tinsel town's B-Classics.

Adrift in Macao
Book and lyrics by Christopher Durang
Music by Peter Melnick
Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Choreography: Christopher Gattelli
Music Direction: Fred Lassen
Orchestrator: Michael Starobin
Conductor: Randy Cohen
Cast (in order of appearance, *reprise of Philadelphia performance): Will Swenson (Rick Shaw) *Orville Mendoza (Tempura), *Michele Ragusa (Corinna), Jonathan Rayson (Trenchcoat Chorus/Joe/Daisy), Alan Campbell (Mitch), *Rachel deBenedet (Lureena)
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Costume Design: Willa Kim
Sound Design: Peter J. Fitzgerald
Running Time: 90 Minutes without intermission
Primary Stages at 59E59, (212) 279-4200.
From 1/23/07 to 3/04/07; opening 2/13/07

Song List
  • In a Foreign City/Lucreena
  • Grumpy Mood/Mitch
  • Tempura's Song/ Tempura, Mitch
  • Mister McGuffin/ Tempura,Corinna, Corinna, Joe and Daisy
  • PrettyMoon Over Macao/Lucreena
  • Mambo Malaysian/ Corinna
  • Sparks/Lucreena, Mitch
  • Mitch's Story/Mitch, CorinnaLucreena
  • Adrift in Macao / Lucreena, Corinna, Mitch,Tempura
  • So Long/ Lucreena
  • The Chase/Mitch, Ensemble
  • Revelation/Tempura
  • Ticky Ticky Tock/Lucreena, Corinna, Trenchcoat, Chorus

Adrift in Macao reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund

What's your name?
Tempura, because I have been battered by life.
And you're a vegetable
---Conversation between Mitch (hero) and Tempura ("scrutable" Asian)

Christopher Durang's Adrift in Macao is in World Premiere by Philadelphia Theatre Company. Like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls this is a show about other shows, at least two steps removed from real life. Whereas Southern Belle sent up The Glass Menagerie, this is Durang's and composer Melnick's take on old movies. Perhaps because it doesn't have the kernel of reality found at the heart of most of Durang's work, the humor isn't as LOL funny as it might be, although Southern Belle, also a stepchild, has a gleeful bite.

Adrift in Macao is billed as "a hilarious and irreverent musical parody of film noir!" Noir is Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity, and The Big Sleep, and a bleak b&w world where the Look is everything: blinking neon, oblique shadows of Venetian blinds, and shady characters seldom seen in full light. This musical, however, is stage-technicolor and paper lanterns, all Dorothy Lamour and Chiquita Banana. Brightly lighted by spots, the characters usually are found in a shallow plane downstage. Rather than intrigue and shadow what we have here is a Road Movie or Exotic Location "Noir": Casablanca meets Road to Singapore. All that's missing is Bob Hope and Der Bingle.

Inhabited by tissue-thin characters who always speak ironically, the vaporous yet fun plot hangs on a MacGuffin, the plot device Hitchcock once described as something the characters care about but the audience doesn't. In fact, the device is personified in an actual character, a baddie named MacGuffin. In the one dark scene -- on the docks with flashlights and fog-- cast members in black trench coats and fedoras search for MacGuffin while yelling "pow pow" for gun noises. Subtle and sophisticated it's not. It is funny in a hit-you-on-the-head Musical Comedy Revue kind of way that, at least tonight, is a bit slow and strained.

There are, however, surprises in store, and lively actors play the stereotypes -- a mysterious Asian, beautiful dames, and handsome, hardboiled heroes. Rachel de Benedet and David McDonald as romantic leads Lureena and Mitch, do a marvelous job with the songs. Crowd pleasing Tempura is played by versatile Orville Mendoza, who can do Asian, Irish, what-have-you, all with a broad yet impish smile. Michael Rupert's underwritten Rick Shaw is a perfectly tuned, world-weary club owner. Michelle Ragusa is Corinna, an opium addicted call girl/singer, reminiscent of Lucille Ball, who is still nice even after she loses her gig to Lureena. She sings "Mambo Malaysian"; the song title alone speaks of the wacky conglomeration that is this musical.

This is a lark for the playwright and the composer, whose fondness for old movies and musicals shows in the playfulness of the spoof, the references, the silly and unexpected lyrics, and the cool music. Peter Melnick's music, idiosyncratic and detailed, is surprisingly graceful and easy-moving. The title song, "Adrift in Macao," is especially nice, and "So Long" has a satisfying rock & roll-y rhythm behind its outrageous lyrics. But by far the audience's favorite tune, and the highlight of the evening is Michael Rupert's meta-theatrical, mildly be-bopping number, which he hands to the conductor and asks him to play. It is not listed in the program. (Now THAT'S funny.) He complains to the audience that he's an under-used performer, and sings, "I am talented. Why didn't they write me a song? Why did I have to pay my own money for a song?"

What this musical lacks in depth and snap it nearly, but not quite, makes up for in fun. It would be a mistake to go into this looking for a Long Day's Journey. Not every play or breezy musical requires gravitas, and Adrift's depths can be plumbed with a demitasse spoon. You can't knock it for not being what it never was intended to be, can you? Still, homage served up as a confection melts away fast, and some sign of the pointed, aggressive comedy that lurks beneath the fluffy top of much of Durang's other work would be most welcome here.

Sent off with a perky song, "Ticky Ticky Tocky," which turns into a sing-along, the audience leaves in a good mood. Audience members congregating briefly under the marquee after the show all seem to use the same word, "fun."

Adrift in Macao
Book and lyrics by Christopher Durang
Music by Peter Melnick
Directed by Sheryl Kaller
Choreography: Christopher Gattelli
Music Direction: Fred Lassen
Orchestrator: Michael Starobin
Conductor: Randy Cohen
Cast: Rachel deBenedet, Michael Rupert, David McDonald, Orville Mendoza, Michele Ragusa, Jennie Eisenhower, Michael M. Malone
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Lighting Design: Paul Gallo
Costume Design: Willa Kim
Sound Design: Peter J. Fitzgerald At Plays & Players Theater, Delancey Place Running time 95 minutes, no intermission 10/19/2005 to 11/20/2005; opening 10/26/2005

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 11/04 performance

Song List
  • In a Foreign City/Lucreena
  • In a Foreign City (reprise)/Mitch
  • Tempura's Song/ Tempura
  • Mister McGuffin/ Corinna, Tempura, Trenchcoat, Chorus
  • Moon Over Macao/Lucreena
  • Mambo Malaysian/ Corinna
  • Sparks/Lucreena, Mitch
  • Mitch's Story/ Mitch, Corinna, Lucreena
  • Adrift in Macao / Mitch, Lucreena, Corinna, Tempura
  • So Long/ Lucreena
  • The Chase/Mitch, Ensemble
  • Revelation/Tempura
  • Ticky Ticky Tock//Lucreena, Corinna, Trenchcoat, Chorus
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