Theater review: `Wildcat’

May 11

42nd St. Moon's "Wildcat"
Maureen McVerry is Wildcat Jackson and Rob Hatzenbeller is Joe Dynamite in the 42nd Stret Moon production of the 1960s musical Wildcat.

Not much growl left in `Wildcat’
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There’s a moment in Wildcat that redeems the whole shaky venture.

With 42nd Street Moon, the company that dusts off lost, forgotten or unjustly ignored musicals, there’s always a tricky balancing act. You want to deliver an enjoyable show that the audience embraces for its own merits. But then again, you want to explore musicals that aren’t done often (if ever) and that means there may be a reason for languishing in obscurity. Sure, it’s a fantastic opportunity for musical theater enthusiasts to experience a show that they otherwise could never see, but for the general audience, that can be a form of musical torture.

In its recent shows – namely Girl Crazy, Irma La Douce and High Spirits – 42nd Street Moon has demonstrated the next evolution of its staged concerts becoming more fully developed but still small-scale musicals. The current offering, Wildcat, is more of a step backward.

The actual show has a lot to do with it. Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) contribute a patchy score with only a few real highlights, and the book by N. Richard Nash (of The Rainmaker and 110 in the Shade fame) has a real Li’l Abner complex with its cartoony characters and preposterous romance. The only reason Wildcat is remembered at all is that it was the one and only time Lucille Ball, coming off the height of her 1950s fame (and her marriage to Desi Arnaz), appeared on Broadway.

The world loved Lucy in 1960, and apparently they also enjoyed Wildcat, which must have traded heavily on Ball’s star power. They say the heavy workload of starring in a musical eight times a week was more than the famous redhead could bear and she put the show on a break to recover from exhaustion but never bothered to rev it back up. My theory is that Ball got bored because there was so little substance to the show that she had to do virtually all of the work to put it across. Whatever, Ball bailed on Broadway, and plans for a movie version were scotched as well.

42nd Street Moon presents WILDCAT

If you’re going to look for a Bay Area equivalent of Lucille Ball, you need look no further than Maureen McVerry, a comically gifted redhead with a long local resume. McVerry, in the Ball role of Wildcat Jackson, Wildy to her friends, has charm and energy. She puts over the score’s bona fide hit song, “Hey Look Me Over” (with Rebecca Pingree as Wildy’s limp, limping sister, Janie) and she has some nice chemistry with leading man Rob Hatzenbeller as Joe Dynamite, a man with a nose for oil.

McVerry and Hatzenbeller succeed despite the fact that neither is playing a likeable character. They have gusto, which is more than can be said for the show in general. There are bursts of humor and fleeting good tunes, but nothing much lands.

Director Kalon Thibodeaux is defeated by the creakiness of Nash’s shallow book, and he generates a lot of hammy, cheesy acting from his cast.

The saving grace, aside from the leads, comes as a major surprise at the top of Act 2. A bunch of oil rig workers are speculating on the success of a new well and dreaming about what they’ll do with the money when it comes pouring in. The song is “Tall Hope,” and it’s an oasis of genuine emotion and beautiful melody. Arranged by music director Dave Dobrusky, the song has a depth of feeling unlike anything else in the show, and it’s stunningly performed by Robbie Cowan, Derek Travis Collard, Peter Budinger, Kyle Payne and Jimmy Featherstone.

The song is a revelation and the kind of thrilling musical theater moment that comes with discovery. And what company other than 42nd Street Moon, taking risks on cast-offs and musical theater history footnotes, provides such opportunities for discovery? None come readily to mind.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

42nd Street Moon’s Wildcat continues through May 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

Here’s Lucy with Paula Stewart performing “Hey Look Me Over” on the “Ed Sullivan Show”:

One comment

  1. Love that title and I have to agree the book is very shallow. I remember seeing Lucille Ball in the production at the Alvin. I was never a big Lucy fan and I thought it was Lucy playing up their on the stage. Every time she was not on the stage the musical became dull. I did love the score and I played it to death on an LP.

    One of the reasons she left the show was that she became exhausted doing 8 shows a week. She collapsed on stage on April 22nd. She and her husband owned the show and they decided not to find another star to take over the part so they closed the show.

    Several regional companies did the show back east several years after. Mammie van Doren and Gale Storm played the leads in several production. I did see another version of the musical when Martha Raye played the role in New Jersey. She was very good but she mugged alot.

    I thought the second romance between Justin Torres as Hank and Rebecca Pingree as Wildcat younger sister did not work. You mention Lil Abner which I worked on at Paramount during my short stay of several years with the studio. Kyle Payne who has appeared in several leading roles at the company certainly looked and acted like a character in the musical “Lil Abner”.

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