Arts & EntertainmentArts & Culture

Chasing a ‘Straw Hat' with comedy, wit

TheaterMusical TheaterEntertainmentIranPatrick KerrCentral Park

Shame. It's so motivating. All of us, except perhaps candidates for higher office, will do just about anything to avoid humiliation. The word originally meant to hide bare flesh, and, as Adam and Eve discovered, it's all in the fig leaf.

The importance of keeping your head (and other parts) covered is the goal of "An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville," the thoroughly silly and deftly charming new musical at South Coast Repertory. Based on Eugène Labiche's 1851 vaudeville, John Strand's new adaptation transposes the action to New York City in 1906 and adds music by Dennis McCarthy ("Star Trek").

If the update and the new tunes don't completely blow the dust off this classic, the expertise of director Stefan Novinski and his adept cast offers plenty of breathless fun.

On the morning of his wedding day, Fadley (the excellent Daniel Blinkoff) marks his final hours of bachelorhood with a ride in Central Park. His horse manages to breakfast on the eponymous hat, owned by a married woman (Michelle Duffy) canoodling with a lieutenant (Damon Kirsche).

The lovers follow Fadley back to his town house, refusing to budge until the groom replaces the lady's headgear. Meanwhile, Fadley's impatient bride (Erika Whalen) shows up, trailing her nouveau riche dad (Richard Doyle) and adoring cousin (Matthew Koehler), all too ready to see their imminent in-law on the outs. How long can Fadley hide a scarlet -- i.e, bare-headed -- woman in his bedroom?

As Fadley chases the hat, his machinations generate an increasing number of pursuers. Doors slam, identity is mistaken, and puns are extracted from the most unlikely words.

This is a highly accomplished effort, a smart comic machine that hurdles its characters from one amusingly improbable scenario to another, across Donna Marquet's mobile green and purple set, complete with old-fashioned footlights. (The witty transitions are staged like silent movies.)

"Hat" pretends to be much ado over an ugly accessory, but it really celebrates the mechanics of theater: silly walks, extreme caricatures and the ability to simultaneously detonate a dozen tiny plot points like some stage supercollider.

Novinski paces the whole thing like a 100-yard-dash and mostly keeps his game cast from winking too often at the audience. As the hapless Fadley, Blinkoff never flags, becoming a human light bulb or a conniption fit as each new idea or catastrophe strikes him. He sings and dances; he shrugs, shrieks and implodes -- the performance is a gloriously illustrated encyclopedia of comic moves.

The supporting talent runs deep: Patrick Kerr's toady Slav is a ridiculous pleasure, and the ever-reliable Duffy, whose big voice barely fits in the Segerstrom theater, offers droll turns as a doughty baroness and the two-timing trophy wife (in Shigeru Yaji's appropriately out-sized costumes).

But the play is nearly jacked by Kasey Mahaffy, whose lunatic turns as a paranoiac and a bored butler access some fabulously strange but true corner of the human psyche.

The contribution of two-time Emmy-winner McCarthy, however, feels tentative. His short songs, which source ragtime, operetta and barbershop styles, often don't take advantage of dramatic opportunities.

McCarthy does give Blinkoff one smart song -- "I'Il Be Happy," which suggests that tying the knot will make him anything but -- and it would have been fun to see more declarative numbers like this.

Vaudeville is all about the animal desperation underneath our careful manners. The more furiously our hero struggles to preserve his dignity, the more he loses it. "Hat" breaks a healthy sweat, thanks to the expert efforts of Blinkoff and company, but it never quite hits dervish speed.

Labiche's farce implicitly asks whether bourgeois aspirations -- marriage, property, respectability -- bring satisfaction or straitjacket, but Strand doesn't spin that juicy question as hard and fast as he might.

My favorite Strand farce remains "Three Nights in Tehran" (1996), a sendup of the Iran-Contra affair, and one wonders what a true update of "Hat" might have looked like. (Aren't iPhones and BlackBerrys our contemporary social fig leaf?) "Hat" is SCR's first commissioned musical, and it's good to see this organization, which has fostered an impressive 235 new plays over the last half a century, investing in musical works.

"An Italian Straw Hat: A Vaudeville," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m Sundays. Ends Oct. 5. $25 to $70. Contact: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time: 2 hours.

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