February 25, 2012.By Janet Preus, HowWasTheShow.
Theater Latté Da has stepped to the edges of its musical milieu with the local premier of Beautiful Thing by Jonathan Harvey, with Playwrights’ Center artistic director, Jeremy B. Cohen, making his local directing debut. It’s a wonderfully entertaining play with tangy characters, crackling dialogue and a heartfelt message.
The story involves neighbors packed in row houses in a London working class neighborhood, who battle it out day-in-day-out with the abuses life hurls at them. The skirmishes extend beyond family and spill unrestrained into the small patches of a garden outside the door of each.
Fifteen-year-old Jamie (Steven Lee Johnson), a likeable kid, has little interest in football and other sports, unlike his neighbor, Ste (David Darrow), who’s a natural athlete, although football is not rescuing him from the blows of his drunken father, an unseen presence in the play. Jamie’s mother, Sandra (Jennifer Blagen) manages a bar, an appropriate environment for her brassy persona. Jamie has grown up with Sandra’s boyfriends coming and going, which Sandra tosses off after they’ve served their usefulness. There’s fire licking the edges of Blagen’s Sandra all the time, a lusty lover, to be sure, but she’s even feistier as a mom.
Jamie quite accurately predicts the demise of the latest boyfriend, Tony, played by Dan Hopman, who is the only questionable casting in the show. Hopman is a fine actor, but with his rich, sonorous voice he sounded like he should be spouting Shakespeare rather than the choppy cadence of what I presume is London’s East End.
Johnson and Darrow charm as the two adolescents, the picture of puppy love—a cute couple who find themselves in the awkward position of not only being very young, they’re also gay. Their fears and angst, their sparring and their budding feelings are played with a good ear for the verbal ticks peculiar to kids. Their budding relationship flows with a natural rhythm of fits and starts, anticipation and completion.
Latté Da is stretching the definition of “musical theater” with this production by attaching the music of The Mamas and Papas to a play. There’s a good reason for this. Leah, the troubled kid next door played by Anna Sundberg, is obsessed with Mama Cass. Sundberg dangled her performance over the top at times, but in the end delivered some powerhouse moments, and a completely lovable character. Yes, Leah, somebody does care about you.
Music director, Dennis Curley backed up singer/narrator, Erin Schwab, both top shelf musicians. Schwab has a peaches-and-cream voice and a winning presence, belting out one familiar hit after another, but every time she made an entrance—up the ramp, popping out of this door or the next, smiling at the audience—I wondered again, “What’s she doing here?” Instant disconnect. The idea for the songs made sense, but she just needed to be somewhere else so that all we had to focus on was the lyric and how it spoke to that moment in the play.
The Lab Theater, a converted warehouse, seems a less-than-ideal choice for producing a play that hinges on its intimate moments, and the large space required that the actors shout their lines more than the dialogue dictated. Further, the bulk of the action was on an elevated platform and ramp, turning the floor of the theater into a kind of moat separating audience and action. The metaphorical reason for waiting until late in the play to make more use of the space on the floor in front of this platform is clear enough, but I don’t think it was reason enough. I felt distanced from the characters, and was relieved when they finally descended to a more normal level. This might have influenced the large picture decisions, which seemed odd to me. The “close-ups,” however, were riveting, even from a distance. This is where the play truly succeeds.
One might argue that with so much that’s chaotic in these characters’ lives, real love seems a particularly precious thing, and indeed that turns out to be the case. This play isn’t so much about gay teens who fall in love; it’s about loving people the way they are, and that’s a beautiful thing. The show runs through March 18.