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You Can't Take It With You
By Elyse Sommer
And so they did!
No desperate struggling to get or keep any kind of food on the table in the zany Vanderhof-Sycamore household. Watching the farcical goings on in this beehive of dilettantism, was just the ticket to make people laugh away their troubles. Add a bound to end happily romance, Kaufman amd Hart's nifty way of mixing heart-warming sentiment with on the mark wit for each member of the constantly increasing cast. No wonder You Can't Take It With You was a one of this gifted duo's biggest hits. — winning a Pulitzer, a popular film adaptation, half a dozen Broadway revivals as well as countless community theater and high school productions.
The large, colorful cast is a sure-fire magnet for star casting and some previous permutations have featured some pretty big names — the last Broadway revival in 1983 starred Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and James Coco and the golden oldie Frank Capra movie featured Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart. But there's no shortage of stars in the revival now at the Longacre! Director Scott Ellis has gathered the current theater's top scene stealers to recapture the classic madcap comedy's mojo. What's more the scenery every one of them zestfully chews, is in itself a knockout.
Coming as it does as we're reeling from another Depression, not to mention seemingly unending global conflicts, You Can't Take It With You's zaniness once again offers welcome relief from problem beset reality. With tight theatrical budgets making large casts the exception rather than the rule, just seeing the stage fill up with eighteen actors is a special treat. But the size of the cast would mean nothing if the director didn't steer his farceurs to make the most of Hart and Kaufman's smartly crafted characters and manage to keep the audience laughing without neglecting the serious subtext about how to live life joyfully.
Sharing grandpa's do-your-own-thing philosophy are his daughter Penelope Sycamore who abandoned painting to write plays when a typewriter was delivered here by mistake. It's a role made to order for master of ditzy types, Kristine Nielsen the scatter-brained
Penny's husband Paul (Mark Linn Baker) pursues his passion for fireworks that explode (naturally, not always in the right place) with Mr. DePinna (Patrick Kerr) the ice delivery man who became a member of the household eight years ago.
Penny and Paul's daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford) might actually earn some money with her candy making, but she determinedly focuses her joy which is ballet dancing. Ashford tops her delightfully idiosyncratic performance in Kinky Boots by moving across the stage almost constantly on her toes, usually with husband Ed (Will Brill) banging out accompanying melodies on his xylophone.
Naturally, even the most insanely unconventional family story needs someone more conventional. That brings us to Essie's sister Alice (a terrific stage debut for Rose Byrne (best known for the TV serial Damages). Alice actually has a day job working for a financier which opens the door to the play's romance, between Rose and her boss's son Tony Kirby (a charming Fran Krantz) and the explosive get together between her super-individualistic family and Tony s very proper parents (Johanna Day and Byron Jennings).
As Alice and Tony's romance set up in Act one will predictably survive, so Act Two meeting between her family and his parents (Johanna Day and Byron Jennings, in their own way as deliciously over the top as their more obviously eccentric hosts) is guaranteed to be explosive than anything coming out of her father and Mr. DePinna's experiments in the basement.
That's just the essential plot. Various subplots bring on a bunch of minor characters making major impressions.
Karl Kenzler, shows up long enough as IRS tax collector Henderson for a hilarious exchange with Grandpa Vanderhof on the pros and cons of paying one's taxes. The always superb Reg Rogers is a riot as Kolenkhov, the flamboyant Russian emigre who's Essie's dancing teacher. Julie Halston, another seasoned scene stealer does so magnificently as Gay Wellington, an actress with questionable credentials but an unquestionable taste for alcohol.
Crystal Dickinson is Rheba, the maid, a once de rigueur character in any family play the maid. Don't ask where her salary comes from, or if you should read something into the fact that she qnd her boyfriend Donald (a Marc Damon Johnson) eat at the table with the family all of whom addresses them by their first names, while Rheba and Donald use the more formal Mr./Mrs/Miss form.
But the parade of expert scenery chewers isn't over until it's almost over and Kolenkov brings on Olga. As played by Elizabeth Ashley this Russian royal turned waitress in America sweeps on stage with regal grandiosity — but quickly trades her furs for Rheba's apron to dish up a platter of blintzes for the all's well that ends well dinner party.
David Rockwell's already mentioned applause getting house, turns from its exterior to an interior that must not only accommodate everyone's hobbies, but a truly amazing accumulation of memorabilia. The characters are all exquisitely and authentically dressed by Jane Greenwood. Lighting, sound, wigs by Donald Holder, on Weston and Tom Watson further enhance this no expense spared production, as does Jason Robert Brown's incidental music.
Though nutty shtick prevails, make no mistake about it, this is not a 1930s version of the currently much done dysfunctional family story. The Sycamores are a loving, lovable and decidedly functional family to insure a decidedly enjoyable visit with them.