Plaza Theatre Company
Directed by Taffy Geisel
Set Design - JaceSon P. Barrus
Sound Design - G. Aaron Siler
Properties Design - Tammie Phillips
Lighting Design - Cameron Barrus
Costume Design - Kara Barnes
Stage Manager - Crystal Todd
Boxing Coach - Murray Cox
Some roles are double-cast. This is the cast for this review.
Emma - Stacey Greenawalt King
John Lawless - David Phillips
Livingston Biddle - Jeff Loy
Joe Mancuso - Devlin Pollock
Tony Biddle - Daniel Robinson
Spike Omalley - Billy Myers
Mrs. Benjamin Duke - Tonya Laree
Anthony J. Drexel Biddle - Luke Hunt
Aunt Mary Drexel - Trich Zaitoon
Cousin Lucy Rittenhouse - Teran Jones
Mrs. Biddle - Joann Gracey
Angier Duke - Andrew Guzman
Cordelia Biddle - Gretta Rebstock
Reviewed Performance 4/21/2012
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Anthony J. Drexel Biddle was a bigger-than-life character in the biggest sense of the word. It was 1916 and he occupied Philadelphia like an invading force. Eccentric didn't entirely describe him, though the term fit. He kept gators in the dining room, boxed with famous pro boxers before dinner and ran Biddle Boxing and Bible School from his house. He was a real-life adventurer complete with world-wide exploits and a hobby teaching marines to use Jujitsu before World War I. In 1916 he was worth $1 million. That's $21 million today. Oh, he almost single-handedly saved the sport of boxing, wrote news columns and wrote the military book on hand-to-hand combat still used today.
This American icon's life could occupy this review but that would overlook his greatest joy. He was a family man and that was the subject of The Happiest Millionaire playing at Plaza Theatre Company in downtown Cleburne.
Plaza Theatre Company's website stated it wants "to enrich the community with high quality, family-friendly entertainment that warms the heart, uplifts the spirit, and tells worthy stories." There are times I want to be challenged with deep, important thematic theater. Other times I just want some entertainment with laughs and a happy ending. After 50 miles of driving, I reached this little artistic oasis south of Fort Worth and spent the evening laughing and being entertained in style.
The Happiest Millionaire told the true story of the eccentric man and his family, especially his only daughter, Cordelia, who boxed with her father and brothers, and often won. The story had a familiar theme. Daughter separates from Dad. Dad doesn't like it. Big conflicts ensue. Despite the recognizable plot, this well- written play by Kyle Crichton was filled with laugh-out-loud antics and real pathos as Mr. Biddle came to terms with his daughter growing up.
Crichton co-wrote My Philadelphia Father in 1955 with Cordelia Drexel Biddle. That's the Cordelia in this play. Crichton wrote the stage play in '57 and it was popular. The Disney movie came out in '67 and it wasn't. This story needed a stage. Plaza Theatre courageously brought the unknown play to Cleburne and it was an evening well worth the drive.
A theater that wanted to produce an unknown play with lots of action and characters embroiled in chaotic full-stage action was wise to ask Taffy Geisel to direct. A master at inspired family story-telling, Geisel engaged a talented set of stage artisans and a group of actors, young and old. She inspired them to create believable characters and grand spectacle. She created a relentless pacing in dialog and action that kept the audience on our toes. She created exciting stage pictures and a comfortable sense of urgency in the cast. We felt the energy.
The simple living room set used for all scenes was designed by JaceSon Barrus in Plaza's theater-in-the-square. Walls on all sides behind the audience were painted and decorated as walls of the living room, which placed the audience inside the room with the actors. Cameron Barrus built a simple lighting scheme to keep the actors lit at all times regardless of their place on the floor. Aaron Siler created a sound track of music from the era and added sound effects in the four corners to provide evidence of off-stage action. He added alligator sounds to a large alligator on wheels, both cheesy and funny. Tammie Phillips found a plethora of period stage props which allowed a continual set of stage business by the active Biddle family, bringing the story to life.
Kara Barnes created an amazing rack of colorful and story-focused period costumes. Dresses were richly outlandish and ornate, some with sequins, all in pastels and vibrant colors. The hats worn by the ladies were gigantic, over-the-top, colorful and as different as each character wearing them.
Much of the show was centered on the family penchant for boxing and there were numerous fight scenes coached by Murray Cox. Every fight scene was believable and actors were totally committed to their comedic fights in a real boxing style.
Plaza Theatre was a wonderful little theater of about 150 seats with no seat more than a few rows from the stage. Why were microphones necessary? What happened to natural sound? The effect was that no matter where an actor spoke their voice came from a small speaker array right above the stage and it was noticeable. Siler's sound effects seemed to come from the four corners where off-stage rooms were located and this created spatial breadth in the set. Actors, however, sounded as if they were standing above the stage even when walking upstairs in a distant corner. I'd rather hear actors project and radiate their wonderful voices from where they stand. It seemed such a small thing to use technology to make sure everyone could hear the lines but that small thing can distract from a great production when it probably wasn't necessary.
The story was physically demanding, requiring most actors to use their physical skills at a high level. Drexler Biddle was played by an ebullient Luke Hunt who used his own physical skills to set the tone for the show. Biddle's eccentricity wasn't a quirk but rather a willingness to live life fully in a society that downplayed outward exuberance. His primary pursuit was unabashed happiness and Hunt infused that philosophy into his acting. It was catching.
Cordelia Biddle was the primary plot focus. Her growth from tom-boy to young lady and how her father responded was the source of most of the comedy. Gretta Rebstock played Cordy with an innocent youthful conflict between responsibility to her father and a growing sense of independence. The object of her dreams was Angier Duke, a boy from a rich New York tobacco empire. Andrew Guzman played him as a young man torn by his mother's expectation he would take over the family business and his desire to go to Detroit and work in the fledgling car industry. Two youngsters, both restrained by their families, struggled to find their own identity. Who can't identify with that?
The Happiest Millionaire was an ensemble piece with many strong characters contributing important bits to the story. There were so many good performances that it doesn't seem right to leave anyone out, yet space requires it. Trich Zaitoon played Aunt Mary Drexel, the thorn in Biddle's side. Her harping at him to send Cordy to a finishing school for ladies was the impetus that changed her path. Her later cat-fights with the Duke family matron, Mrs. Benjamin Duke played by Tonya Laree, showed the animosity between a free-wheeling happy Philadelphia family and the staid New York family.
John Lawless, the house butler, regularly cleaned up Mr. Biddle's troubles and was part of the family. In this performance Lawless was played by David Phillips as the understudy. His regular job alternated with Andrew Guzman as Angier Duke but he did a fine job of effecting a proper English butler with English accent and an air of English formality. He stepped into this role with comfort and style.
The outstanding ensemble supported this story with interesting characters, fully engaged in the plot and action, never drawing attention from the main story but fun to watch in their own responses. Kudos to Taffy Geisel for this direction.
The theme of this story was stated in some pithy quotes by or about Biddle. One caught my ear and summarized all I've learned about his amazing life. "Life's a pretty precious and wonderful thing." So was this play. If you want to experience an evening of grand entertainment, drive down to Cleburne and watch The Happiest Millionaire.
THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE
Plaza Theatre Company
111 S. Main St.
Cleburne, TX 76033
Runs through May 12th
Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday at 3:00pm.
Tickets are $12.00 - $15.00
For information and tickets, go to www.plaza-theatre.com or call 817-202-0600.