Thursday, March 07, 2019

Flora the Red Menace

If you know the musicals “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” you know the music of the songwriting duo John Kander and Fred Ebb. But you may not be familiar with “Flora the Red Menace,” their first collaboration.

Now is your chance to see this seldom performed show in a sparkling production at Wyatt Pavilion, under the direction of Mindy Cooper, professor of theater, and Granada Artist-in-Residence Judy Blazer, an acclaimed veteran of Broadway and regional theater. Graduate student Diego Martinez-Campos collaborates with Cooper on the choreography (he also performs in the show). Graham Sobelman provides music direction.

At a talkback after one of the performances, Cooper explained the choice of this musical was precisely because there is so little available about the show on the internet and she felt it was the perfect opportunity for the actors to create their own characters without trying to copy something that had been done before.

The show originally appeared on Broadway and won a Tony for Liza Minnelli, making her Broadway debut. It only ran for 87 performances but was revived off-Broadway, with a new book, in 1987, and it had better success.

Though set in 1935 in the midst of the Depression, the story resonates with today’s young people, struggling with many problems, yet with a renewed desire to work to make the world better.

Flora Meszaros (Talia Friedenberg) plans to be a fashion designer and applies at Gimbel’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s and Altman’s before finally applying at Garret and Mellick’s where she meets Harry Toukarian (Nathaniel Challis), a fellow artist, who stutters when he gets nervous.

Friedenberg’s Flora is a positive thinker, knowing she is somehow going to “make it” (“The Kid Herself”), though not quite satisfied when its seems that she does.

“When it all comes true
Just the way you’d planned
It’s funny but the bells don’t ring”

(It should be noted that none of the songs in this show ever made it into the popular repertoire, though they are fun to hear and in places show where Kander and Ebb will go in the future.)

Harry confesses that he is a communist and may be one of the most likable communists you’ll meet outside of “The Americans.” He is earnest, sincere and knows that he will help change the world, as he urges Flora to “Sign Here” and join the party.

Flora invites Harry to come to her artists’ cooperative loft, which is shared by several other struggling artists, including Kenny (Martinez-Campos) and Maggie (Aubrey Schoeman), dancers who are looking for a big break. They have several fun dance numbers, like “Keeping it Hot.”

Sophie Brubaker adds great passion and comic genius to the role of the uber Communist, Charlotte, especially impressing the others with her acts of the week (“Just Tuesday in the subway I threw a rotten egg/I called a man a fascist and I bit his daughter’s leg.”)

Things become more contemporary in lines like ”Don’t worry, there’ll never be another crash” and the chorus:

“There are people out there with no shoes on their feet 
Who shelter in doorways in snow and in sleet. 
And they search through the garbage 
to find something to eat.”

Flora’s dedication to the party is tested when she must make the choice of whether or not to cross a picket line to correct an error she made that will cost 33 people their jobs. Her decision will affect both her dedication to the party and her relationship with Harry.

Special notice must be made of understudy Katie Halls, who learned everyone’s part and then one day before the opening, filled in on some scenes for one of the actors who had some physical problems. You’d never know that Halls had not been cast in the role from the beginning.

This may not have the pizzazz of Chicago or Cabaret, but it is nonetheless fun to see how Kander and Ebb got their start, and the production is excellent, so this is the way to see it!

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