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Connecticut Theater

"The Boy Friend"
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam CT

Percival: “That lady is a highly esteemed member of the community.”
Lord Brockhurst: “Oh, yes, yes. I’m sure she is. They manage these things so much better in France.”
Percival: “She is, sir, a headmistress.”
Lord Brockhurst: “I say! You are in luck, aren’t you?”

And there you have “The Boy Friend” in a nutshell. At Goodspeed Musicals, the Sandy Wilson pastiche, with its irresistible tunes, is a perfectly pleasant summer entertainment. It’s also a dig at certain British characteristics, like their ever-lasting rivalry with the French, their class consciousness and their upper-lip sense of understatement.

But the Goodspeed rendering, as directed by Julie Andrews (yes, that one) also reflects the show’s peculiar history. The long-running London production (2,084 performances) emphasized the piece as a nostalgic, loving, just slightly off-kilter tribute to 1920s musicals.

When done in New York (485 performances), the work was still loving, still nostalgic, but goofy, funny and much more a spoof. Wilson saw the two aspects as warring against one another, sweet and sentimental vs. sweet and satirical – and he preferred the former.

At Goodspeed, Drew Eshelman’s Lord Brockhurst embodies the split and what is both endearing and puzzling about this revival. Looking for all the world like a Punch cartoon by Ronald Searle, Eshelman brings smiles to audience faces at his every appearance. A young girl sitting next to me sat up and giggled at his comic pomposity, his harmless lechery and his delicious wiles in trying to escape the supervision of his demanding wife. Eshelman, knowing what’s real and what’s a put-on, is a knockout.

Yet, chuckles were limited at the preview performance I caught. Playgoers saved their most vociferous reactions for the dance numbers, choreographed with manic precision by John DeLuca, with an assist from Rick Faugno who is also in the cast as Bobby. Indeed, when Faugno and partner, the equally exuberant Andrea Chamberlain as Maisie, high-kick their way through “Won’t You Charleston With Me?,” they stop the show cold

The purposely nonsensical plot has to do with Mme. Dubonnet’s finishing school on the Riviera where Polly, a rich girl pretending to be a secretary, meets Tony, a rich boy pretending to be a messenger. “I Could Be Happy With You,” they sing to each other, further deciding they’d be satisfied with “A Room in Bloomsbury.”

Also involved are Tony’s parents (the Brockhursts) and Polly’s father, Percival Browne, a widower who rekindles an old flame. The climax occurs at a masked ball, here rendered in stunning black and white (with a touch of red) costumes.

Andrews, then 19, became a star when she played the leading role of Polly in the New York production. At Goodspeed, Polly is Jessica Grové, an ingenue with a pretty face, pretty voice and pretty bearing. But lightning does not strike twice in the same place.

Sean Palmer does what he can with the stick-figure Tony. Nancy Hess’s Mme. Dubonnet and Bethe Austin’s Hortense are more bubbly than the fake Champagne painted on prop glasses, while Paul Carlin is a suave Percival.

Tony Walton’s sets (after Raoul Dufy) and his costumes with Rachel Navarro are stylish, as is the lighting design by Richard Pilbrow and Dawn Chang.

In the program, Andrews refers to the show as “a delicate piece of lace.” Occasionally, as in a transition moment when girls throw beach balls over the heads of the audience (beaning a few customers), she throws in an odd, welcome stitch.

This is a genial and affable production, lacking an edge. It’s at its best when everyone’s feet are going or when, in a delicious highlight, Eshelman joins with the charmingly wacky Kirsten Wyatt in “It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love.” You might agree with the agreeable Brockhurst when he says, “We were merely passing the time of day.

-- David A. Rosenberg
July 28, 2005

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