Monday, April 03, 2017

"A Proper Place" - Pleasing musical if you don't mind the problematic themes

The cast of A Proper Place (Mark Kitaoka)
A Proper Place
Village Theatre
Issaquah: Through April 23, 2017, Everett: April 28-May 21, 2017

If you don’t think about the substance of the brand new musical, A Proper Place, making its world premiere at Village Theatre, you can enjoy the peppy songs and (as usual) impeccable cast and have a pretty good time.

The story is based on J.M. Barrie’s 1902 play, The Admirable Crichton. Barrie wrote the much more famous Peter Pan books and plays. An upper crust British family goes on a cruise in their pleasure boat with a skeleton servant crew. They’re blown off course and land on an island with little hope of rescue.

None of the wealthy family knows a thing about survival, so they depend on their butler and a scullery maid/turned resourceful ladies’ maid to manage shelter and food and everything else. How the butler and maid know how to survive is an open question, but again, if you don’t look at it very hard, it’s just a stereotype and can be fun.

It turns out that the butler, Kevin Vortmann, doesn’t just know a little about how to survive, he’s actually a master at devising better housing, better feeding, and even better clothing than anyone can imagine. It’s a bit of magical stagework. (Vortmann had to step in at the last minute due to injury, but carries the entire show as if cast originally! He’s got a strong, clear voice and leading man carriage. It’s great to be introduced to him and we hope to see him again in Seattle!)

So, the idea is that it pits the butler’s own training of the rightness of society being bifurcated into “upper crust” and “servant class” against the realization that on the island, he’s really in charge. The “proper place” of society depends, then, on circumstance.

If this musical were adapted in the mid-1930s, it would by now be a cute classic, perhaps. However, even though writers Leslie Becker and Curtis Rhodes try to infuse 2017 sentiments into the script, giving the characters a wake-up call about their own prejudices, it doesn’t go nearly far enough in that direction to deserve the hoped-for kudos of a brand new musical that covers a properly updated sensibility.

Those who have been steeped in Downton Abbey and their butler’s insistence on the proper way to run an aristocratic household will recognize a similarity. But Downton Abbey was actually focused on meticulously recreating how that world was, not on commenting on what it could change.

The island segments of the musical could have been filled with what it took to learn to exist in this new environment, rather than a pseudo-power struggle with the “lord of the manor” and the butler. There’s plenty of potential humor to be had there.

Ultimately, what is the likeliest reason for this lack of updating is a too-faithful rendering of the book’s story. Instead, the writers could revamp the story by focusing on the humor of having early 19th Century characters take on 21st Century values, perhaps. I would bet the book is out of copyright protection by now.

There are three daughters: Chelsea LeValley, Sara Bordenet and Krista Curry, with LeValley getting to shine in her first lead role on Village’s main stage. Lord Loam is the always steady Hugh Hastings. Randy Scholz plays a foppish cousin who gets some of the humor load. David Caldwell is a compassionate clergyman. Sophia Franzella stands out as the scullery-maid-with-the-mostest, making the most of the plucky character and the laughs. The talented ensemble gets to go back and forth between servants and society gabsters.

They’ve made an engaging production here, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then have fun. If you’re concerned about stereotypes being reaffirmed or the awkwardness of a butler justifying his attraction to the eldest daughter “because on the island” he is “king,” and that makes you feel queasy about men thinking women owe them by virtue of position, you might want to skip it.

For more information, go to www.villagetheatre.org or call 425-392-2202.