By Bill Hirschman
One of the real joys of being a theater critic is seeing a genuinely “promising” work, even when its creators still plan revisions.
But in this case, while the authors plan more work on their new musical One More Yesterday at The Foundry in Wilton Manors, don’t mistake that as any excuse not to go out of your way to enfold yourself in this moving, humorous, tuneful and heartfelt look at the aftermath of fleeting fame, the silly vagaries of show business, second chances, and the primacy that relationships should have over our professions.
And while the music/lyrics by Dennis Manning and Bobby Peaco, and the script by director Ronnie Larsen is touching and comical, and while the talented ensemble exudes joy throughout, the don’t-miss reason to buy tickets is to savor Angie Radosh giving yet another superb performance that elevates this piece to an even more powerful, emotionally connecting level.
Radosh transforms into brilliant 83-year-old actress, Lydia Taylor, winner of three Tony Awards, who hasn’t had a Broadway role in decades or a major role anywhere but Omaha for 13 years. Living on Social Security in a tiny New York walkup apartment, she can’t get a scrap of work from her 20-something agent. “Do you realize my career started to decline ten years before you were born?” she says. “I have shoes older than you.”
The price paid over the previous years of steady work was she became an insufficiently attentive mother to Liz, a child from a husband who died almost immediately. The grown Liz raising a family on the West Coast is seriously estranged from Lydia.
Lydia, indeed, was a fine actress with a major track record that we see in flashbacks as Lady Macbeth, Blanche Dubois and Martha in Virginia Woolf. She still has the chops – and red hair – but her spirit is cripplingly disheartened by the lack of work that totally defines her self-worth.
We follow her as she auditions for insulting bit parts and later for ridiculous (although hilarious) commercials for Depends, AARP and funeral services. The casting agents tell her they revere her past history – but they don’t hire her.
In desperation, she auditions in a last-ditch effort for a horror movie The Vigilante Granny, a basement-quality production with a below-basement budget. It depicts an elderly gray-haired woman who stabs bad guys with her knitting needles, sort of a senior female Charles Bronson in Death Wish. She’s not getting paid, just accumulating points towards health insurance and a Metro pass. The kicker is it’s being “filmed” on a cellphone. But it’s actual work and she’s having a qualified buzz.
As the project continues on site, she meets an affable senior janitor Benji (the always charming Avi Hoffman) who is a fervent fan of her past and who himself once hoped to be an actor in his youth. He indeed knows Shakespeare and the two share a few speeches.
When the production folds, Benji pursues a relationship with her. He delightfully woos her by dancing first with his mop, and then her – followed in their imagination with a movie production number in which the entire ensemble dressed in coveralls dances with mops with silvery heads.
He learns that she’s no diva, but a seasoned clear-eyed trouper who deals with tough times with droll humor. She tell Benji that she once acted in a movie with someone named Benji – Benji the dog. “He was a very good actor. He was the best actor in the movie.”
Their relationship strengthens, they move in together, Benji proposes and Lydia comes to terms with getting out of the business and forging a relationship.
And then, minor spoiler alert, inexplicably and near the bottom of the credibility scale, the granny film becomes a world-wide success. So decisions need to be made about how to move into the future with lessons just learned about real life.
This is an unabashed musical comedy with plenty of both elements, especially Lydia’s witty retorts to the clueless youth around her. But at its heart is the challenge what do we become and what do we do in Act III of our lives when options shrivel
We’ve been praising Radosh now for more than a decade. She can do comedy, she can do musicals, she can do drama (a uniquely fresh Amanda in The Glass Menagerie), she can do one woman tour de forces (The Year of Magical Thinking). No matter the part, what you don’t catch her doing is “acting.” She just inhabits whoever that person is in the story. She has one of the most expressive readable faces in the business capable of exhibiting pain, joy and above all an internal intelligence at work, here somewhat askance as she evaluates the world she used to command now overtaken by shallowness and madness.
She has been given plenty of solid material to work with here with Manning and Peaco’s melodic score that can be deeply felt one moment and mirthful the next.
Manning and Larsen penned the musical Now & Then that played here in 2018. Manning actually wrote the first song for this show about 30 years ago then shelved the work. About four years ago, he and Larsen delved into the show in earnest and joined with pianist and musical director Peaco (co-author of with Larsen of Come Out! Come Out!) to give the melodies a Broadway musical polish. Even on Peaco playing a single piano, the result is a thoroughly satisfying score infused with bounce and emotion.
Larsen’s script is imbued with the role of dreams in our lives — dreams never achieved, dreams achieved but lost, dreams that are or have been crucial to the fabric of our lives. When Benji mentions haven given up his youthful hope of being an actor, he also notes he also wanted to be a fireman, astronaut, president and Fred Astaire.
It’s echoed in the aching lyrics for a key song for Lydia:
I want one more yesterday
I want to know that all my triumphs
Were not in vain….
I want my dreams to get in the way
Of all the plans that might have been
But never came to pass
And the loved ones
That I hold dear
Have somehow faded
Only old photographs remain
Of the beauty that I once was
Of the future that was yet to be
Larsen directs the production on The Foundry’s shallow stage with a continually fluid flow and wry humor to balance the melancholy. In one special number staged with choreographer Oren Korenblum, Lydia conjures up a memory of her (Casey Sacco), young and beautiful in a lovely costume, performing a number in one of her old movies. Silently, today’s Lydia mouths the words of the song along with her and then tries to copy the dance routine that the younger woman does easily in front of her. Think of the similar production number in Sondheim’s Follies.
The ensemble playing so many parts as well as the commenting chorus is clearly having a terrific time as seen in the 500-watt glow they radiate: Brandon Campbell as the young blithe agent whom Lydia sees as a The Devil, JaVonda Carter as the writer of Vigilante, Abbey Alder, Kaelyn Ambert-Gonzales and Demi Master. Special praise to Toddra Brunson as the director who increases the candle watt level whenever she appears and Sheena O. Murray as the daughter Liz, both lending outstanding voices to their solo numbers.
Reserve credit for Preston Bircher’s lighting, which carries much of the change of scene on Melquisedel Dominguez’s simple but effective set design of five frame portals lined with glowing colorful neon tubes.
Special note is required for George Schellenger’s integrated projections – photos, logos and videos on a white brick wall across the back of the stage – that not only create the ever-changing environment but comment on it. It’s easily the best and most copious use of projections of any show I’ve seen locally.
Just before we go: Actor-playwright-producer Larsen, once known primarily for gay sex-related comedies, has increased his more mainstream offerings at his eponymous company in Wilton Manors with dependable success including the scathing An Evening With John Wayne Gacy, Red Speedo, The Code and The Actors. Although usually an ebullient host inside the theater, he takes his product seriously: This musical technically opened a week earlier but was closed when he felt it needed to be 20 minutes shorter. He also shuttered an earlier show that simply was never coming together.
One More Yesterday from Ronnie Larsen Presents runs through May 14 at The Foundry at Wilton Theatre Factory, 2306 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Running time 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission. 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $37.50-$53.50. Call 954-826-8790 or visit https://www.playsofwilton.com.