HPT Commie Dearest: An All-American Success

March 8, 2010

HPT 162: Commie Dearest in the New College Theatre through March 7th

HPT 162: Commie Dearest, an original musical with book and lyrics by Alexandra Petri ’10 and Megan Amram ’10 (from this point on referred to as Pamram ’10), and music by Alex Lipton ’11, continued the second week of its five week run this Wednesday, February 18, 2010. The latest production by the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the oldest collegiate drama troupe in America,  lived up to a reputation over a century and a half old, leaving audience members smiling and satisfied.

A humorous send-up of 1950’s America, Commie Dearest both employs and lampoons stereotypes of the era, combining racism, misogyny, and the Red Scare into a hilarious slice of small-town life. Set in Our Town, USA, Commie Dearest tells the story of the residents’ attempt to win a contest with a particularly special prize: the American Dream. Along the way, they struggle with their repressed secrets and exasperation with suburban America. Complicating the plot, a motley crew of communists in search of a unique set of nuclear arms bring the Cold War to fever pitch.

Though the plot often lacks momentum, the character-driven nature of the show more than makes up for it. Very much an ensemble cast, Commie Dearest nonetheless contains several stand-out performances. Clifford Murray ’10 and Ryan Halprin ’12, as the beautiful-but-“fishy” Marlin Monroe and space potato Spud Nick respectively, use acting chops and excellent comedic timing to run away with well-written jokes. As local bowling alley owner and alcoholic Olive Lucy, Derek Mueller ’10 stuns with his powerful voice and commanding stage presence. With a cartoonish physicality and perfectly-executed one-liners, Adam Lathram ’10 is hilarious as closeted baseball star Doug Out, while Andrew Cone ’11 stood out both with his beautiful vocal abilities and shockingly convincing performance as sexy mail-order bride Sasha Frigidvitch.

This wealth of quirky characters, however, is perhaps also the source of the show’s greatest weakness. While most characters work well, some, like Derek Flanzraich’s ‘10 Wes Sidestory, are plagued with jokes that don’t quite land and failed comedic timing. Furthermore, the majority of act one is spent introducing all twelve characters, forcing the plot to take a back seat to character development. Pamram’s idea has potential, but it develops slowly. Many numbers, like “Up Your Alley” and “Turn Me On” are entertaining but lack dramatic motion, and the cliffhanger finale of Act I feels rushed and awkward. Nevertheless, the second act picks up the pace, introducing a number of exciting plot twists and successfully wrapping up the show’s loose ends.

However, like all of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ productions, a gripping plot and dramatic energy are not meant to be the focus of the show. Rather, the book and lyrics excel in the Pudding tradition of sharp wit and excellent humor. Petri and Amram (who were also the co-writers of last year’s Acropolis Now) have crafted a hilarious show, and provocatively walk the line between funny and offensive. Their work easily lives up to the Pudding’s tradition of knee-slapping jokes, jaw-dropping jabs, and groan-inducing puns.

The show’s music, however, does not quite live up to the same standard. While the score as a whole is effective, at times the music stands in the way of the show. Tunes like “Let The Men Handle It” (sung by vocal powerhouses Walter Klyce ’10 and Kyle Dancewicz ’11) and “Twist Ending” leave the audience humming catchy melodies, but the brassy underscoring (orchestration by Dan Ring ’99 and Ben Green ’06) becomes monotonous and makes no attempt to capture the iconic musical idioms of the 1950’s. Nevertheless, the band performed spectacularly, always in tune and never overpowering the actors.

Under professional director Tony Parise and choreographer Karen Pisani, the cast fills the stage and never loses the audience’s attention. In both intimate moments and large group scenes, the stage rarely feels too empty or crowded, and the kickline sequence that concludes the show is a remarkable spectacle. Technical elements went off without a hitch, and designs elements were all in place. Peter Miller’s Bowlarama backdrop was particularly eye-catching, successfully portraying the idealized 1950’s stereotype that the show consistently mocks, while Heidi Hermiller’s costumes for the robotic Betty Boopboopbeepboop (Daniel Kroop ’10) and Cuban diner owner Desi Speakenglish (Matthew Bohrer ’10) stand out among a sea of sparkles and sequins.

Highly enjoyable, Commie Dearest makes for a great night of laughs. Taking its place in the illustrious history of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the 162nd production is not to be missed. Be sure to catch it at the New College Theater, where it runs until March 7th.

- The Harvard Art Review Theatre Board

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