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A CurtainUp Review
Swimming With Water Melons

A Small Show Takes Wings From the Berkshires to Off-Broadway
Swimming With Watermelons
Emily Hellström -Tomoko
Rachel Benbow Murdy-George Innes
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
This small, offbeat musical made a brief appearance in the equivalent of an Off-Off-Broadway location in the Berkshires. But word of mouth, including mine, made the brief run a hit.

I felt certain that it would reappear, and thought that the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre which had showcased Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner before, would be an ideal New York location. My prediction and hope have now come true.

Swimming With Water Melons, its cast and design team intact has just opened at the Vineyard. It proves as endearing on second viewing as the first time around. In the light of current world events, the theme of tolerance is more meaningful than ever. Part of the show's charm is the aura of high school gym simplicity that hides the sophistication of the stage techniques. This is best illustrated by the way the KOKEN manipulate the props throughout -- besides the ribbons of ocean waves, mentioned below, they provide headlights and windshield wipers for a car ride, an upright bed for the couples' to, as they said back then "go all the way." There are just two instead of four of these unobtrusive scene setters this time around, but no matter. Swimming With Water Melons is still a sweet as a ripe watermelon. It's again scheduled for an all too brief run. Don't miss it. -- Elyse Sommer
Off-Broadway Production Notes
Swimming With Water Melons
Conceived and directed by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. (Park Av S./Irving Place), 212/353-3366
Cast and Designers: Same as Berkshire production, with the exception of the KOKEN-- the original 3 replaced in this production by Elizabeth Arnold and Veronica Vogt) (below)
3/22/02-4/21/02; opening 4/11/02.
Tues-Fri at 8pm, Sat at 5 and 9pm, Sun at 3pm
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission.

---Original Berkshires Review -- by Elyse Sommer

The Berkshire season nears its midpoint with more notable revivals than freshly minted plays. Happily, there are exceptions. Early on in the season there was Civil Union, a timely and provocative drama at the Old Castle Theater in Vermont (linked below). Now the always inventive and interesting Music-Theatre Group has brought a delightful new play with music to the Arts Center of Simon's Rock College.

The bad news about Swimming With Watermelons is that its performance schedule is limited to three long weekends (with this review being written in the middle of the run). The good news is that husband and wife collaborators Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner (best known for Running Man and the Off-Broadway hit, The Donkey Show in which three of the Swimming cast initially appeared) have achieved something rare and heartening: a thoroughly enjoyable, fun theater piece that explores meaningful themes and is staged with wit and originality. With four versatile and talented members of Project 400 portraying seven endearing and well-developed male and female characters it adds up to a sweet as a ripe watermelon ninety minutes -- a genuine summer 2001 highlight.

Essentially, Swimming With Watermelons is a triple tiered love story of six young people struggling to grow and change to live happily ever (if not forever) after. The setting is Japan during the World War II American occupation. The story of the main couple, a bright Japanese girl named Tomoko (Emily Hellström) and a loveable GI and theatrical impresario named George Innes (Rachel Benbow Murdy) is modeled after the post war romance of Diane Paulus's own Japanese mother and GI father.

As the play's gentle and sensitive narrator, Hellström is the only one of the four-member cast who plays only one role. Murdy segues smoothly from the roly-poly Georg, to Lorraine Iverson a West Virginia gal who has been raised on the principle that the way to keep a man happy is through his stomach. Her actions upon discovering that her husband Grant (Anna Wilson) has been lured by the siren song of a seductive Pan Pan girl named Yuki (Jordin Ruderman) almost does in the Tomoko-George romance.

When not prancing across the stage seductively, Wilson does hilarious double duty as Yvonne Christianson, a brainy and buxom army base librarian whose last name turns out to be an apt metaphor for the problem threatening her romance with a Jewish journalist named Ira Goldstein (Ruderman-- donning another amusing persona). When Yvonne and Ira plan their wedding and she lists her family members who all have very German names, Ira has a musical nightmare that may lack the glitz of The Producers but is as funny as that show' lavish "Springtime For Hitler."

The dual casting reinforces the underlying message of tolerance. Though a nontraditional relationship like that of Tomoko and George no longer requires heroic courage, we still have a long way to go to see people as people, even if they are different from those with whom we grew up.

George's musical Nazi nightmare is just one example of the integration of popular songs of the period (as well as some from the '20s and '30s). Paulus and Weiner ingeniously have the actors join in with Judy Garland, Hank Williams and other recording stars The lyrics seem written specifically for the situation at hand. When Grant picks up Yuki at the railroad station, "Temptation" becomes the accompaniment for a sizzling tango number. When Lorraine leads a meeting of GI wives against fraternization, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" becomes a "Remember Pearl Harbor" anthem. "Night and Day," "Stormy Weather" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" are just some of the other sweetly familiar songs that tie Swimming to the best tradition of musical theater.

Michael Chybowski's lighting adds to the Karaoke flavor. The presentational style of narration works beautifully with Myung Hee Cho's unfussy set design which evokes a number of locations. There's one particularly beautiful scene in which Tomoko and George swim in an ocean of ribbons manipulated by the two KOKEN.. Costume designer Ilona Somogyi aptly supports the actors' numerous personality changes.

Unless I miss my guess, this big-hearted, small-scale musical will have a life after Simon's Rock. Wherever it goes I hope it will continue just as it is -- same clever but simple staging, same versatile quartet of thespians. The Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre which has showcased work by Paulus and Weiner before, would be an ideal New York stopover on what should be a long journey.

The Donkey Show a long-runing Paulus-Weiner hit
Civil Union
The Producers

Swimming With Water Melons
Conceived and directed by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner
Created by Project 400

Cast: Emily Hellström (Tomoko), Rachel Benbow Murdy (George Innes, Lorraine Iverson), Jordin Ruderman (Ira Goldstein, Yuki), Anna Wilson (Grant Iverson, Yvonne Christianson); Susannah Hyland, Phoebe Kreutz, Laura Newman and Stella Sensel as Tomoko's KOKEN
Set Design: Myung Cho Hee
Costume Design: Ilona Somogoyi
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski

Running Time: 90 minutes without Intermission
Arts Center Theater at Simon's Rock College, at Hurlburt and Alford Roads, Great Barrington, 413-298-5504..
The show runs three consecutive, Wednesday-through-Saturday July 18-21, July 25-28 and August 1-4, all at 8 p.m.-- $25 (general seating).

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on July 26th performance
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