Much like the classic television show “Hogan’s Heroes” mined all the humor possible from something as truly awful as life in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, “My Old Friends,” currently running at the Victory Theatre in Burbank, mines all the humor possible from something as truly awful as life at the Golden Days Retirement Hotel, circa 1979.
As the title implies, the main characters are old, and they are friends. But the play’s title isn’t really about how well nine residents bond together to overcome the patronizing and suppressive attitude of the never-seen, always-present hotel director, Mrs. Stone.
The title is about the bag full of medications needed by handsome and appealing newcomer Peter Schermann (Tom Ormeny) in order to deal with his dozens of ailments. His ailments, in turn, are simply the result of surviving for more than 65 years, while being forced to deal with the devastating losses of his wife, his health, his home and his work.
And every single one of his new friends at Golden Days knows exactly how that feels. But their way of dealing with such inescapable pain is by making a joke, cracking a smile, dancing a dance, singing a song and finding something meaningful in the day they’ve been given.
Just like the amazingly professional cast of “Hogan’s Heroes” was primarily responsible for that show’s two Emmy Awards and 10 Emmy nominations (wasn’t Werner Klemperer great?), the amazingly professional cast of “Old Friends” is primarily responsible for making this musical a sweetly pleasant night out.
Credit belongs to director Maria Gobetti for finding 11 such wonderful singer-actors, who can switch from schlocky to sensational in seconds flat, who know that the best ensemble work means helping everyone else onstage shine and who can transform mostly functional show tunes into showstoppers.
“My Old Friends” was originally produced off-Broadway in 1979. Gobetti chose to keep the 1970s framework of the show, a choice that makes sense when the musical numbers are all rooted in the era when most of the residents were growing up — the 1910s and 1920s.
Inevitably, that choice also means that the music is twice as unfamiliar to modern ears. Most of the songs sound just plain stodgy. But put a soulful R&B; number like “A Little Starch Left” in the hands of someone like Mrs. Cooper (the delightful and sublime Pat Hodges) and soon everyone in the room will be on their feet and shouting “Encore.”
Musical direction by Scott Harlan is smooth and seamless. Choreography by Cat Caplin is age-appropriate fun. So go on up to the Victory Theatre and spend two hours watching how the old pros do it. They do it right.
MARY BURKIN is a Burbank actress, playwright and Glendale lawyer.