Living in a cynical age, it’s refreshing to see a musical comedy like My Favorite Year. “Nice” and “Charming” are the first two words that come to mind, but this is no fluff piece. Behind every cutesy dance number is an exploration of the two lead characters’ secret pathos. It’s smart and sweet, a rare combination, and I’m glad to see Damascus Theatre Company take the story on.
Based on a well-received 1982 film of the same name, starring Peter O’Toole and Mark Linn-Baker, My Favorite Year was adapted into a musical ten years later with a book by Joseph Dougherty and a score by songwriting team Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, better known for their hits Once On This Island, Ragtime, and Seussical. The show closed after only 36 performances and 45 previews, despite a star-power cast including Tim Curry and Andrea Martin. Again, I suspect cynicism.
Our story is about Benjy Stone, a young writer for the King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade – circa 1954. Flaherty’s musical score is a definite throwback to that era, with pastiches of the Andrews Sisters (the joke commercial “Maxford House”) and the typical love-letter-to-New York song (“Manhattan”). Benjy has been tasked with taking care of the show’s big guest star that week, Alan Swann, a former swashbuckling movie star and a current drunk (any similarity to Errol Flynn is purely intentional). With a quirky supporting cast to round out the laughs and gags, the book gives room for Benjy and Swann to become fleshed out characters with their own problems beyond starring in a Three Musketeers sketch.
This is helped in large part by the likeable and capable leads. Gabriel T. Potter (Benjy) is the wonderful glue to hold that holds the show together. In his first solo, “Larger Than Life,”, otter is both earnest to a fault when discussing his love of Swann’s movies and melancholic when reflecting on why he loves them so much. But he is not weighed down by his sadness. He spins it into joy instead; after all, he is a comedian. Potter’s no slouch in that department either; his nervous vaudevillian outbursts and overzealous dance moves are a scream when wooing girls and pitching sketches to his boss.
Ed Higgins (Alan Swann) masterfully establishes his character during his first two entrances. The first time he’s permanently tilting and inebriated. He careens into everyone in the writer’s room before somersaulting onto a table and passing out. The second time we see him, he glides in sober, white tux and long cigarette in hand, all sophistication and possessing that unmistakably British flamboyance.
Higgins’ Swann is good at hiding his thoughts, at playacting a part, but when the time comes to be serious, he delivers. His performance of “Exits” is a highlight. He hits every shade, from dismissive Hugh Grant-esque cad, to bitter anger, to triumphant but naïve resolve. While a complicated person, Higgins remains a charming man who you want to see succeed.
David Fialkoff (King Kaiser) and Lee Michelle Rosenthal (Alice Miller) play very well off each other as lead comedian and his eternally struggling second banana. Rosenthal in particular is a scene stealer. Watch as she gets into character for the made-up-on-the-fly script in “Musketeer Sketch”— you’ll be riveted. Kristina Friedgen (Belle, Benjy’s mother) is also a standout, particularly in the group number “Welcome To Brooklyn.” She’s the right mixture of grating, overbearing mother and sympathetic.
Julia Donato (K.C. Downing), Potter’s love interest, pulls off a tough feat as the character who is “not funny” while surrounded by comedians. She perpetually seems as if she’s walked in on something she’d rather not see, which really pays off in “The Joke,” when we see that comedy both excites and frightens her. Donato and Potter also have a cute chemistry, from their awkward first tango to their more successful dance later on.
Megan May’s choreography is versatile. My favorite dance numbers are “The Gospel According to King,” where the ensemble demonstrates hilarious routines that serve as antidotes for Kaiser’s perceived television superstitions (Somebody sneezes? Do a chicken a dance), and “Shut Up And Dance”, Benjy and K.C.’s sweet and awkward dance. It’s gentle, genuine, and still very funny.
Rachelle A. Horn did double duty as director and set designer. In addition to producing a very well-paced show, Horn’s set was fantastically put together. While mostly making use of minimalist establishing features, such as a table, chairs and a door frame, each location still felt like a very distinct and separate place. I particularly liked the set for Swann’s Waldorf Hotel suite, with a couple balcony doors opening out onto a color art deco painting of the Manhattan skyline.
Rick Swink’s lighting design has some nice spotlight work that really added to the showbusiness feel. There are also some impressive projections on a almost-always-present TV screen. Credit goes to Bruce Rosenberg for the fake Alan Swann film clips and Keith Tittermary for the slides that serve as establishing location shots and TV credits for the sketch show.
If you’re looking for musical with a story that is equal parts heart and laughs, the Damascus Theatre Company’s production of My Favorite Year will surely deliver.