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A CurtainUp Phildelphia Review
"The Three Maries: A Philadelphia Phable
This is the latest creation by the guy who brought us the inimitable musical Baby Case, which, 13 years later still ranks among the top musicals I've ever seen. He's also the talent behind Cafe Puttanesca and Tulipomania among other highly entertaining nights at the theater. Early this year he premiered Field Hockey Hot, and he does the scores for the popular pantos at Peoples Light and Theatre, including their current Christmas season's The Three Musketeers (The Later Years).
The crazy inspiration for this 20s romantic musical comedy was Queen Marie of Romania. One of the three Maries of the title, she actually did visit Philadelphia and the Bellevue Stratford in 1926. In The Three Maries, Philadelphia itself is as important as any character. Dan Efros's huge projections of vintage Philly photographs background many scenes. The scenic/lighting design (Thom Weaver) features a Kensington home, a Mummers Club House, a City Hall office, and the ballroom of the Bellevue Stratford Hotel.
Although things start out slow and a little stiff, the music soon gets things hopping. The varied song plot carries the action and the tunes are not all the same (the downfall of some new musicals). Clever — sometimes hokey — lyrics drive the narrative, cluing us in on who these people are, what their lives are like, and what they want.
Big Marie wants her daughter to get married. She reminds her there are perfectly good guys in the Mummers string band her father captains. But Little Marie, a graduate of "Katie Gibbs" aka the Katharine Gibbs Schools of Secretarial and Executive Training for Women, will not marry a Mummer. She wants to make her own way. Scoring a job at City Hall, she's secretary for a boss (Paul L. Nolan) who has proudly never worked a day in his life.
Little Marie gets Pygmalioned. On a self-improvement path, she wants to lose her Philadelphia accent. Her next aim is to get her mother to act more refined. [This being musical theater, Little Marie learns to speak "hoity-toity" in a matter of days... but changing her proud blue-collar mom? Good luck with that.]
The thought does occur, though: In an "I Heart Philly" story the central character has a love-hate relationship with her life circumstances. Could her determination to lose a Philadelphia accent be taken as a criticism of her family, neighborhood, and beloved city? But the mix of pride and embarrassment isn't just a Philly thing. It's universal. Kind of sad that moving up often means moving out.
The music rocks in its old fashioned, classic musical way. But although the stage has been extended to include a walkway, the space feels tight. Director/Choreographer Peter John Rios makes the best of the constraints. This isn't a piece of cake: He must accommodate not only dancing actors, changing scenes, and props including large architectural cutouts of the modern mismatched City Hall tower, but also the six-member band along with at least 11 instruments including drums, piano and a glockenspiel. The assortment of visuals sprawling across the huge screen in the background adds to the packed scene.
I'll leave the ins and outs, and possible villain in the story for you to discover. Be assured the whole cast is well chosen. All three Marie actresses are wonderful. Rachel Brennan's lively Little Marie has it down. Big Marie (Kathy Deitch) is a force of nature, and Mary Martello, with regal bearing, sparkles as the queen. The marvelous voice and earnest lunacy of Jeff Coons's Count Frederick wins everyone over. The Count, an outsider and aristocrat, is no snob. Charmed by the Philly accent, he can't wait to learn it.
A new musical will always need some ironing out, and this one's no exception. It starts off a bit shaky and there are issues, but this high spirited show has heart and it struts and swaggers. By the end audience members are on their feet, doing the Mummers strut to whatever extent is possible in the space between their seat and the seat in front of them, becoming part of Michael Ogborn's funny, expansive Big Bear Hug for the city.