Theater Review - Twice Upon a Time

by Bondo Wyszpolski
Published February 21, 2008

Companies whose bread and butter is musical theater tend to play it safe, because audiences are fickle and productions expensive – and anything out of the norm is a big risk. On that account alone, the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities should be commended for developing and staging a new work, Ray Cooney’s “Twice Upon a Time.”

Cooney’s a bankable commodity, England’s Neil Simon, and he’s considered a master of British farce. Last fall, two of his plays, “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and “Funny Money,” were staged locally.

“Twice Upon a Time” is more ambitious, with a sizeable lead cast and ensemble. It’s about a young lawyer named Steven Tancred (Brandon Michael Perkins) who’s in the pressure cooker: First, he’s about to marry Barbara Pilsworth (Jennifer Malenke), who happens to be the daughter of his boss, Gregory Pilsworth (Robert Machray). Second, he’s one of two lawyers assigned (Kevin Symons as Jeff Walker is the other) to clear out an elderly widow, Mrs. Emily Clarke (Millicent Martin), so that her home -- quaint and singular though it is -- can be demolished and replaced by a shopping center.

Because of a new office rule in his present-day England, Steven tries to give up smoking, and thus finds himself undergoing hypnotherapy in the office of Dr. Patel (Danny Bolero). The result? Past life regression, with a vengeance: Steven goes back in time and space to 1929 Chicago, where he’s a green-behind-the-ears gangster named Johnny May, accepted into the gang of mobster Bugs Moran (Sam Zeller) on account of his father’s exploits. Johnny May, however, doesn’t want to be a criminal; he wants to buy a farm in Idaho.

On his very first mission, as the getaway driver, he witnesses a clean hit – a couple of Al Capone’s hoodlums dropped by trigger-happy Fingers (Jeffrey Rockwell). He then throws up and runs the car into a fire hydrant. You have to imagine a gang of hardened tough guys and then a character who’s somewhat like Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” channeling Woody Allen.

Young Johnny May swerves into the danger zone when he becomes smitten by Bugs Moran’s moll, Ruby (Misty Cotton), who in turn has a soft spot in her heart for him.

Steven then comes out of his trance and re-enters the stressful present. He and Barbara, his fiancée, have a zillion things to finalize before the wedding, but Steven’s feet have a chill, if you catch my drift, and he’s also not looking forward to trying to coax an old lady out of her hearth and home.

But now he’s fixated on his other life, begins to confuse it with this one, and is easily transported back and forth in time. It’s not exactly the kind of scenario in a typical Cooney farce where Character A comes in one door just as Character B dashes out another, but it’s the same principle. In fact, the premise is appealing, and the transitions between present and past are successfully accomplished.

Since he can’t keep his mouth shut about Ruby, Barbara and her family begin to wonder if there’s another woman. “He’s Having An Affair” is a lively number that takes place in the caterer’s showroom, with especially invigorating performances by Monica Smith as Mrs. Pilsworth and an Alan Cummings-like Matt Bezmarevich as the caterer.

By the end of the first act it’s clear that we’ve got a good cast and an energetic show, but clear as well that the music and the songs and the situations aren’t much of a step forward from musicals that first emerged 50 years ago. There’s also the law of diminishing returns: Steven travels easily back and forth through time, and although he doesn’t bring his present memories to bear on 1929, he does begin to see or imagine people in Great Britain as being the same people he has encountered in Chicago almost 90 years earlier.

We finally meet Emily Clarke as the curtain goes up on the second act. Her little house is virtually surrounded by a construction site, and workers in hardhats are all but swarming around her. Unfortunately, Emily Clarke seems blithe rather than distraught, and essentially says that she enjoys the company and the noise. Since she now gives the impression of being senile, why should we feel much sympathy for her plight?

Enter her granddaughter, a rather feisty Linda Clarke (Misty Cotton again, and initially in her Annie Oakley mode). Well, Linda kind of looks like Ruby, and in Steven’s mind that’s exactly who she is. At this point, the viewer has two options: Unplug all willing suspension of disbelief and suffer in silence, or remove one’s brain and place it in purse or wallet and continue having a great time. For example, in any plausible universe, none of Steven’s friends and associates would be talking about his upcoming wedding; they’d be talking about his breakdown and his need to be institutionalized.

These leaps of faith required by his viewers have never been a problem for Ray Cooney, and, yes, there are audiences that eat this up. Those who love silly soap operas are free to join the conga line. But the story also has its more serious, problematic moments, as when we see a pair of cops dancing among gunned-down bodies after we’ve witnessed the violent death of a boy and watched in anguish as two people, on their knees with a pistol to their heads, about to be executed.

Sure, everything sorts itself out in the end (that’s a Cooney trademark, too), but why even bother to say that it’s forced and contrived? Most musicals are, and yet within that framework we can lose ourselves in memorable songs and engaging characters and compelling situations. “Twice Upon a Time” has clever lyrics, by Mary Stewart-David, and Chris Walker’s score moves us along, but where do we end up?

With a show that’s moderately entertaining and yet not original enough or bold enough or convincing enough to be important. The effort that went into this production is laudable, but in the end it’s not nearly enough.

“Twice Upon a Time” plays through March 2 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, Aviation and Manhattan Beach Boulevards, Redondo Beach. Performances Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $45 to $60. Call (310) 372-4477 or go to civiclightopera.com. ER