The British have always had a special knack for wry, subtle, gentle humor (well - OK - make that HUMOUR). Comedy that packs more of a sting than a punch.
"A Penny for a Song" is one of those kind of comedies. It starts off at a kind of slow, leisurely pace, then builds to a frenetic Keystone Kops/Marx Brothers finale.Under Charles Morey's deft hand, his 14-member ensemble does a delightful job of presenting what is, ultimately, a jolly good show.
Rather than the broad, almost slapstick humor of "Noises Off," this is more in "The Horse's Mouth" and "The Mouse That Roared" territory - an understated blend of wit and wisdom as seen through the slightly crossed eyes of the daffy, eccentric Bellboys family and the assortment of characters traipsing through their estate on a summer day in 1804.
If I were forced to pick one really outstanding talent in the entire show, it would be very difficult. You see, in its very proper British way, the acting is as understated as playwright John Whiting's conflicting themes of idealism vs. reality and peace vs. war.
I couldn't single out Sam Stewart (who was unforgettable as the "Arkansas"-singing Fool in last season's "Big River"), who certainly leaves his distinctive mark in the somewhat lofty role of lookout William Humpage, spending the entire 21/2 hours perched high overhead in a makeshift treehouse.
Nor could I lavish all my praise on Richard Mathews, Max Robinson, Anne Stewart Mark or Susan Floyd as the slightly over-the-edge Bellboys family (respectively the wacky Sir Timothy, who's convinced Napoleon Bonaparte and 75,000 troops are massed across the English Channel, ready to assault the little village of Dorset; Lamprett Bellboys, Sir Timothy's off-the-wall brother; Hester, Lamprett's overbearing wife; and Dorcas, their giddy, coming-of-age daughter).
Nor could I single out Samuel Maupin, Bob Kirsh, Warren Kelley or Robert Peterson, who portayed, in the same order, Sir Timothy's friend and confidant, Hallam Matthews (he'd just like a quiet afternoon in the country, thank you); social activist Edward Sterne; Hallam's valet, Samuel Breeze; and George Selincourt, the leader of the local regiment (a sort of Three Musketerrors).
Louis Schaefer, James Giddy and Rufus Piggott portray the three local soldiers, with Holly Claspill as Pippin, the Bellboys' maid, and Aaron Nelson and Andrew Barlow West alternating in the role of "a small boy."
The entire cast is uniformly fine in what is, basically, an ensemble effort.
No, the REAL star of this production - if there is, indeed, one, is the gifted George Maxwell's wonderful set design. There was nearly as much applause the moment the curtain lifted as there was at the finale.
"Is that a REAL person up there in the makeshift treehouse?" nearly everyone must have been wondering when Kendall Smith's lighting lit up the stage. And, when Stewart moved his leg, then sat up to scan the far horizon, it was obvious that we'd be in for a thoroughly delightful evening.
K.L. Roberts costumes were right on target, too - arguably highlighted by Anne Stewart Mark's appearance as sergeant major of the province's chapter of the Amazon Arms.
The plot, despite the assemblage of the somewhat strange characters, is rather simple. Sir Timothy is preparing to thwart Napoleon Bonaparte's attack on the village, with the reluctant help of his London friend, Hallam Matthews.
In "Laugh-in" style, there is considerable opening and closing of doors and windows on the impressive two-story home as various and sundry Bellboys kinfolk get into the action.
Humpage, the family lookout, has been stuck in the tree for the past two years, ever since Lamprett's less-than-skillful fire brigade let his house burn down. Now his main job is scanning the horizon for fires and/or French soldiers.
Then there's lovely Dorcas, anxious to fall in love - when, who should come along, but strapping Edward Sterne, marching home from the French warfront and intent on righting all of the world's wrongs. Sterne doesn't much care for Hallam, who sports a patrician attitude about life in general.
"Mr. Sterne believes in democracy," Dorcas proudly announces to Hallam, her Uncle Timothy's visitor.
"We ALL believe in it, but some of us are simply too proper to practice it," he replies.
Meanwhile, the activity around and about the Bellboys' home gets more and more bizarre as the summer day progresses.
The Bellboys family itself is something akin to the Monty Python clan.
While most of the humor is wryly gentle during much of the first act, the pace really picks up halfway through, and things turn more frenetic during the climax of the big "invasion."
Just like Sir Timothy and his antics in chasing away those French regiments, "A Penny for a Song" is a pleasant way of getting rid of those postholiday blahs.