Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Premiere Productions unleashes “The Man Who Came to Dinner”

Just recently yours truly posted a review of the fast paced “The 39 Steps” based on Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller of the same name and adapted for stage by Patrick Barlow. It involved four players playing about 40 different characters. It’s a madcap comedy that wears you out mid show.

No. I’m not going to go there again. In comparison, Premiere Productions headed by Randall Hickman and Douglas Davis are presenting a steady, easy paced oldie but goodie, somewhat dated, lively and very competent  “The Man Who Came to Dinner” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

This show boasts a cast of no less than 18, some playing multiple roles. It’s also long by today’s standards. It boasts two intermissions but director Hickman, who also plays the lead, preferred a long first act and a shorter second one. I have to admit, it is a long sit.

Cast of "Guess Whose Comming to Dinner"
The setup it is just plain goofy. It was the perfect vehicle for the Kaufman and Hart duo to give a nod to their inspiration Alexander Woollcott who embodies the character Sheridan Whiteside (Hickman) as the blustery eye of this play’s hurricane.

It seems Woollcott showed up at the Hart estate for dinner with his Girl Friday Maggie Cutler (Brannon Shaw). He took over the house and proceeded to terrorize his entire staff while there. The story goes that when he left, he wrote in Hart’s guest book that it was one of the most unpleasant times he had ever spent. And so the play picks it up from there and takes it a step farther.

Sheridan Whiteside, critic, radio gossip columnist, lecturer, theatre critic and friend and promoter to the stars slipped on a piece of ice when he showed up for dinner at the home of factory owner Earnest Stanley (James Winkler) and his wife Daisy (Linda Englund) in Mesalia, Ohio. It is a few days before Christmas.
Randall Hickman and M. Susan Peck
When we meet up with him he is in a wheelchair due to a hip fracture from the fall, ranting and raving about his need for privacy. He all but bans the family to enter the living room where he holds court.

Because the Stanley household is a busy one with two grown children, Richard (Ben Williams) and June (Chelsey Moore) and a household staff, it seems like open house twenty-four hours and there is little that can be done but to come through the main room to the upstairs (Doug Davis designed a lovely and full functioning living room and doors leading to the foyer and back rooms decorated with wallpaper and ornate dressings.  

Whiteside’s friends seem to drop in and out on a moment’s notice and I must admit, it’s a three- ring circus and keeping track of everyone’s coming and going’s is like keeping a baseball score card, something way too complicated for moi.

He manages to throw the entire household into a tizzy as he begins to conduct his business as usual there as if the Stanley household was his own personal property and anyone but his friends were considered the enemy.

His razor sharp tongue manages to insult friend and foe alike (Whiteside to the nurse, Miss Preen (Li-Anne Roswell) taking care of him, “You look like a sex starved cobra”) as the stream of insults rage throughout his stay.

He is particularly partial to his inner circle. They include dear friend Beverly Carlton (Torre Younghans), who was molded after Noel Coward, a character called Banjo (Kenneth Gray) who was likened to Harpo Marx, Lorraine Sheldon (Holly MacDonald), a Gertrude Lawrence stand in and a professor Metz (Doug Olive), who sent a cockroach village to the Stanley home for Whiteside’s entertainment so he could listen to the sex patterns of those dirty bugs, and that’s just for starters. He also is gifted some rare penguins an octopus and an Egyptian sarcophagus which does come in handy at the end of the show, crazy as it sounds.  

Most of the name dropping and there  are many of oldies the likes Ethel Barrymore, Emily Post, Carole Lombard, Margaret Mitchell and Walt Disney, H.G. Wells and Shirley Temple, Oscar Wilde, Horace Greely and ZaSu Pitts to name a few. If you are up on your early (1939-41) Broadway stars you will shake your heads in recognition. If not, you will shake your heads wondering who the hell these folks are. 

Hickman and friends
The show is non-stop one-liners that allow everyone in the huge cast a moment or two of fame in the spotlight. However the story, not withstanding, is just a lightweight vehicle that’s pure unadulterated nonsense and is a great opportunity for funny man Hickman to step into some pretty famous shoes the likes of Monty Woolley the quintessential Sheridan Whiteside.

Woolley’s name became a household word shortly after the play debuted on Broadway in 1939. Hickman has the bluster of a Woolley but not the signature white beard. He is quite sharp and biting. He’s barks are fast and furiously but for some reason most are just plain nasty and I found myself wondering why I thought they were so funny in the past.

Brannon Shaw’s Maggie manages to throw Whiteside off his stride when she announces that she is leaving his service to marry the hometown newspaper reporter Bert Jefferson (Tim Benson). Both Shaw and Benson make a convincing couple.

Whiteside, who thinks she is making a mistake, has another plan up his sleeve. Like a vengeful teenager, he devises a nasty plan to undermine his faithful secretary. Not to worry though this is play with a, ahem, happy ending.

M. Susan Peck is a hoot as the off the wall and mysterious Harriet Stanley, Mr. Stanley’s sister. She is also dressed to the nines in the costumes Hickman coordinated. They are simply plush and outrageous. She has a secret you will have to find out about for yourselves.

Linda Englund’s Mrs. Stanley can’t stop herself from being a bumbler around Whiteside. Winkler can’t get away from the feeling of defeat every time he tries to rebuff the tiresome conditions he and his wife are forced to put up with.

John ‘the butler’ (Doug Shattuck) remains in character throughout and is most effective. Lou Slocum is perfect as the deer in the headlights Dr. Bradley. The two adult children seem to have the right formula to get along with the pushy columnist. All are in tip- top form.

Overall the ensemble is just fine. The play is filled with enough gags, twists and turns to leave a smile on your face. Even though we will never see the likes of a Sheridan Whiteside again, if you were ever a young star gazer consider “The Man Who Came to Dinner” a small taste into the beginnings of Hollywood’s rich and famous and early celebrity watching. Enjoy!

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 30th
Organization: Premiere Productions
Phone: 1.888.802.7469
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido, CA 92026
Ticket Prices: $39.00
Web: welkresorts.com
Venue: Welk Resort Theatre

Photo: Ken Jacques

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