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Adrift in Macao
Adrift in Macao reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund
Christopher Durang's Adrift in Macao is in World Premiere by Philadelphia Theatre Company. Like For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls this is a show about other shows, at least two steps removed from real life. Whereas Southern Belle sent up The Glass Menagerie, this is Durang's and composer Melnick's take on old movies. Perhaps because it doesn't have the kernel of reality found at the heart of most of Durang's work, the humor isn't as LOL funny as it might be, although Southern Belle, also a stepchild, has a gleeful bite.
Adrift in Macao is billed as "a hilarious and irreverent musical parody of film noir!" Noir is Raymond Chandler, Double Indemnity, and The Big Sleep, and a bleak b&w world where the Look is everything: blinking neon, oblique shadows of Venetian blinds, and shady characters seldom seen in full light. This musical, however, is stage-technicolor and paper lanterns, all Dorothy Lamour and Chiquita Banana. Brightly lighted by spots, the characters usually are found in a shallow plane downstage. Rather than intrigue and shadow what we have here is a Road Movie or Exotic Location "Noir": Casablanca meets Road to Singapore. All that's missing is Bob Hope and Der Bingle.
Inhabited by tissue-thin characters who always speak ironically, the vaporous yet fun plot hangs on a MacGuffin, the plot device Hitchcock once described as something the characters care about but the audience doesn't. In fact, the device is personified in an actual character, a baddie named MacGuffin. In the one dark scene -- on the docks with flashlights and fog-- cast members in black trench coats and fedoras search for MacGuffin while yelling "pow pow" for gun noises. Subtle and sophisticated it's not. It is funny in a hit-you-on-the-head Musical Comedy Revue kind of way that, at least tonight, is a bit slow and strained.
There are, however, surprises in store, and lively actors play the stereotypes -- a mysterious Asian, beautiful dames, and handsome, hardboiled heroes. Rachel de Benedet and David McDonald as romantic leads Lureena and Mitch, do a marvelous job with the songs. Crowd pleasing Tempura is played by versatile Orville Mendoza, who can do Asian, Irish, what-have-you, all with a broad yet impish smile. Michael Rupert's underwritten Rick Shaw is a perfectly tuned, world-weary club owner. Michelle Ragusa is Corinna, an opium addicted call girl/singer, reminiscent of Lucille Ball, who is still nice even after she loses her gig to Lureena. She sings "Mambo Malaysian"; the song title alone speaks of the wacky conglomeration that is this musical.
This is a lark for the playwright and the composer, whose fondness for old movies and musicals shows in the playfulness of the spoof, the references, the silly and unexpected lyrics, and the cool music. Peter Melnick's music, idiosyncratic and detailed, is surprisingly graceful and easy-moving. The title song, "Adrift in Macao," is especially nice, and "So Long" has a satisfying rock & roll-y rhythm behind its outrageous lyrics. But by far the audience's favorite tune, and the highlight of the evening is Michael Rupert's meta-theatrical, mildly be-bopping number, which he hands to the conductor and asks him to play. It is not listed in the program. (Now THAT'S funny.) He complains to the audience that he's an under-used performer, and sings, "I am talented. Why didn't they write me a song? Why did I have to pay my own money for a song?"
What this musical lacks in depth and snap it nearly, but not quite, makes up for in fun. It would be a mistake to go into this looking for a Long Day's Journey. Not every play or breezy musical requires gravitas, and Adrift's depths can be plumbed with a demitasse spoon. You can't knock it for not being what it never was intended to be, can you? Still, homage served up as a confection melts away fast, and some sign of the pointed, aggressive comedy that lurks beneath the fluffy top of much of Durang's other work would be most welcome here.
Sent off with a perky song, "Ticky Ticky Tocky," which turns into a sing-along, the audience leaves in a good mood. Audience members congregating briefly under the marquee after the show all seem to use the same word, "fun."
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