Take The Lambeth Walk With Crowd Pleasing Me And My Girl

Julie Kleiner and Matt Loehr cavort in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre's Me and My Girl / Photos by Jen Vasbinder

Julie Kleiner and Matt Loehr cavort in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Me and My Girl / Photos by Jen Vasbinder

The South Florida theater season has ratcheted up into high gear with three, five even six openings in a single week, plus we have advance stories and feature stories coming. We will be posting a new story nearly every day and sometimes twice a day. Therefore, if you don’t see a review of a show that has opened while looking at the top of the front page, please scroll down the page or use the search function. And visit often.

By Bill Hirschman

Pure joy suffuses Matt Loehr’s face – and his hands and wrists and elbows and eyebrows and every other part of him as he cavorts non-stop – and we mean non-stop – in the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s delightful production of Me and My Girl.

It seems that adjective “joy” gets paired with Loehr about every time we’ve written about his four previous turns at the Maltz, but no other word quite fits the infectious emanation from the supremely talented performer born about a half-century too late for inclusion in the Song-And-Dance Men Hall Of Fame.

But in this musical about a Cockney hustler who inherits a peerage, Loehr channels Ray Bolger, the early years of Dick Van Dyke, Donald O’Connor as well as physical comedians Charlie Chaplin, Jerry Lewis and, above all, Jim Carrey – sometimes all at once.

Director James Brennan and choreographer Dan Knechtges know what they have in Loehr and rarely allow him five seconds without indulging his inexhaustible ability to warble and prance. They never let him walk when he can stumble rubber-legged, rarely let him pass by a piece of furniture that he doesn’t trip then somersault over it, few pieces of clothing that he cannot get tangled up in, no prop he cannot commandeer, no musical chord that doesn’t set him to swirling or tapping.

Brennan, Knechtges and Loehr inject hundreds, literally hundreds of bits of comic business. The highly manic display is technically brilliant, endlessly hilarious and sadly distancing since we never stop marveling at Matt Loehr and don’t really get a chance to fall in love with his character, Bill Snibson. A curmudgeon might carp that it’s actually a bit too frenzied.

But these three are hardly alone in enchanting the audience, starting with the divine Julie Kleiner as Bill’s beloved Sally Smith, thus bringing together two of the best musical theater leads familiar to local theatergoers. Then there is a first-rate supporting cast and production values equal to any regional production anywhere.

The show is a 1984 retooling of a museum-worthy 1937 music hall-style crowd-pleasing fable lampooning the supposedly inviolable abysses between castes in the British class system.

It centers on the irrepressible Bill, a rough around the edges numbers runner, pickpocket and street hawker from Lambeth. He is unaware that he is the issue of a brief marriage of his common folk mother and the wealthy 13th Earl of Hareford (pronounced much like the breed of cow). With his father’s death, the Hareford household track down Bill because they need someone to father future Harefords.

To satisfy the terms of the will, a reluctant Bill must learn to be a “fit and proper” gentleman or renounce the title for an annuity. The current Duchess thinks Bill can be shoehorned in although cousin Sir John opposes him. The real problem is that the Duchess tries to undercut Bill’s desire to marry Sally. Bill tries to fit in with the crustiest of the upper crust, but his roots cannot be repressed. Whether he can stay true to himself, win over the bluebloods, avoid the seductions of a cousin with a loveless but monetary marriage on her mind, and keep Sally from running away to give him a chance at this future – well, you better be able to guess those answers.

The unapologetically frothy frippery was written as a vehicle for music hall star Lupino Lane, was later made into a film and was – and is — revived regularly on the other side of the pond. But in 1984, director Mike Ockrent (Crazy  For You) and actor Stephen Fry (dozens of British films and TV series)  rewrote the creaky dated script and sent it to London for an eight-year-run starring the phenomenal Robert Lindsay (who was equally adept at Shakespearean tragedy) and one of Fry’s comedy troupe buddies, a young Emma Thompson. Lindsay came with the show to Broadway in 1986 to begin a three-year run, garnering 13 Tony nominations and taking home three.

Patrons won’t know much of the venerable score. But it harbors arguably the most rousing first act closing number in musical comedy, “The Lambeth Walk,” in which Bill and his busker pals pull the aristos into a jaunty strutting ode to their neighborhood. Really just a chorus and bridge, it’s repeated over and over for five minutes, but it grows and grows and then grows some more in participants, volume, key changes and elation. (If you aren’t humming this one leaving the theater, check your pacemaker). The folks in this production do it proud with an ebullience that drives them into the aisles and sitting in the laps of patrons.

The fish-out-of-water script is jammed with verbal humor – especially puns and malapropisms. Bill bemoans “Infamy. Infamy. They’ve got it in-for-me.” Or when he meets a dowager who says, “I’m Lady Brighton,” to which Bill snaps, “I love your beach.” Or during the seduction when the tigress asks, “Do you like Kipling?” Bill answers honestly, “I don’t know. I’ve never kippled before.” These intentional groaners are pulled off perfectly because the actors never succumb to winking at the audience. There’s also witty nod to My Fair Lady that might escape some patrons,

It’s hard to know how much of the physical comedy is in the script, how much Brennan is recalling from the 1986 production (he was an understudy and replacement Bill) and how much are the new inventions of Brennan, Knechtges and Loehr. But we‘ll bet most of it is the latter. The result is a dazzling never-ending parade such as when Bill is wearing a House of Lord’s ermine-collared cape and manages to get tangled up and tripping over it in ever more complex ways.

While Loehr does more pratfalls than Dick Van Dyke and steroid-equivalent kinetic antics than Jim Carrey, he does get to slow a bit when he croons his solos and even flows into a Ray Bolger-smooth slide-and-glide dance in his eleven o’clock number “Leaning On A Lamppost.” He also has a convincing chemistry with Kleiner, especially when they are dancing together.

Speaking of which, it’s a pleasure any time you see Kleiner, which only occurs about every season and half —far too infrequently. Recall her blind heroine in Actors Playhouse’s Toxic Avenger, the chorus line kid becoming a star in the Wick Theatre’s 42nd Street, the deb in The Marvelous Wonderettes. Kleiner is not just a fine dancer and singer, but she is always acting the emotion of the part. You don’t marvel at her technique and inventiveness like you do with Loehr; you simply believe she is the character on stage. The difference is you are able fall in love with Sally’s vital spirit, her selfless love for Bill and her heartbreak when she sings ballads like “Once You Lose Your Heart.”

The supporting cast is first-rate, especially veteran actress Mary Stout as the matronly battleship Duchess and John Treacy Egan (one of the hoods in the Maltz’s Kiss Me Kate) as the doubting Sir John. Credit is due as well to Lauren Blackman as the avaricious but elegant Lady Jacqueline, James Donegan as the displaced heir presumptive, and James Beaman as a weirdly balletic solicitor who has a funny Gilbert & Sullivan-like patter song.  The hard-working ensemble bringing the cast list to 25 includes several noticeably young teenagers culled from the Maltz’s youth programs.

Maltz stalwart musical director Helen Gregory helms the 10-piece orchestra, which embraces every sprightly melody from the overture to the curtain call. As always, the creative team does solid work including Gail Boldoni’s period costumes. Last but not least is Knechtges whose choreography incorporates half the classic music hall moves in the playbook including having the cast play the spoons and use tennis rackets and shuttlecocks in production numbers.

It’s been a rough few weeks for most of us and the holidays can be a stressful time. Me and My Girl is the precisely the antidote for the seasonal angst – a couple of hours of escapist entertainment. The cast is clearly having a hell of a good time and it’s almost guaranteed that you will too.

Me and My Girl
runs through Dec. 18 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road in Jupiter. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including one intermission. Tickets are $63-$81, available by calling (561) 575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org

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