Wine, beer, barmaids, and song—these are the mainstays of The British Players’ 50th Anniversary Old Time Music Hall. A salute to the popular British music halls of the 19th and early 20th century, the production is a variety show. Attentive servers and free-flowing libations complete the ambience. The servers lead the audience in pre-show and intermission sing-alongs. Not to worry if you don’t know the songs; the lyrics are in the program. During the show, several of the performers also invite the audience to sing along with the refrains of their songs. The entire experience is a historical expedition to a British pub in the early 20th century. This is your grandmother’s music hall, but that’s exactly the point, and it is a lot of fun.
The audience sits at tables draped in checkered cloths. Arrive early, as the close seats will fill quickly. Set Designer Albert Coia has selected some interesting color choices: a yellow-gold background with white pillars. A central archway serves as the performers’ primary entrance. The number 50 and images of the British crown are featured prominently on the set: in navy blue on the yellow, and in yellow on the white pillars. The yellow designs on white are difficult to discern. A different color combination would better highlight these images. The band sits on a raised podium on the left side of the stage, and Malcolm Edwards as Mr. Chairman, the master of ceremonies, occupies a corresponding platform on the right. The bold red front and gold accents on the platforms are the acme of the set.
The company enters for the opening number. They are arrayed in crisp white pants or skirts and red or blue jackets. Costume Designer Joan Roseboom has provided the cast with a dapper and showy ensemble although a few of the mens’ jackets seem a little large on the actors. The dancers have an impressive quick costume change during the first number. Throughout the show, Roseboom’s costume choices are colorful and sometimes humorous or deliberately gaudy. She provides soloist Sarah Leembruggen with a ghastly fuchsia dress and mint-green sash for the song “Why Am I Always the Bridesmaid” and several of the gentlemen singing “Pheasant Plucker” scurry around cross-dressed in floral-patterned peasant skirts and blouses. Soloist Bethany Blakey wears the most elegant costumes of the evening: a sultry teal evening gown for the number “Some of These Days” and a beautiful red and black dress for “The Right Key.” Roseboom completes both outfits with sparkling costume jewelry. The teal dress did slightly restrict Blakey’s movement, but a side slit would solve this problem and add to the sensuality of the number.
Music Director Brock Holmes has worked with the cast to showcase both humor and longing. As the show progresses, the audience meets the Cheeky Chappie played by Coia (who also designed the set and, along with Edwards, co-directed the production). Coia sings about his adventures with a turtleneck “Dickie.” Yes, the song is filled with innuendo. Equally delightful is Bill Karukas’ solo “Bang Went the Chance of a Lifetime” about missed opportunities to do away with unpleasant relatives. The strongest ensemble work comes in the song “Jobs.” Eight members of the cast sing about the career they would choose if they were not on the stage. The timing and vocal commitment are quite impressive.
Shawn Perry’s solo “On the Road to Mandalay” is one of the strongest performances in the show. Perry’s deep, rolling voice is steeped with character and a wonderful narrative quality. Unfortunately, Perry does not have another solo. He does perform in a few ensemble numbers though. Blakey’s two aforementioned songs are the other vocal high points of the show. Blakey’s calm and collected stage presence adds to her powerful and smooth voice as she sings ballads of love and loss. Along with the comical and the enchanting numbers, there are a few that do not add to the overall effect. As the show is over two hours long, directors Edwards and Coia could omit a few of these numbers and not lose anything from the performance.
Although the show is primarily musical, there are a few speeches and dance numbers. Danny Brogan delivers a comic monologue filled with jokes about the British and the Irish. There are a few laugh out loud moments, and Brogan has impeccable comic timing. The Bow Belles (dancers) appear in the beginning and end numbers, but they also perform a Charlie Chaplin-esque number and a can-can. Their signature kicklines are well-executed. The dancers have good stage presence, but they are not always dancing in unison. Unfortunately, this distracted from their overall performance. I am confident this will be corrected as the run continues.
If you have not previously attended a music hall, read a bit about the history before attending. The charm of music hall is its history and culture. This is truly an experience imbued with equal parts antiquity and entertainment. The music hall is approachable and vernacular, and it invites the audience to participate in a long-standing tradition. For as T. S. Eliot once wrote, “In the music-hall comedians they find the artistic expression and dignity of their own lives; and this is not found for any life in the most elaborate and expensive revue.”
The audience was mainly mature adults, but my ten-year-old companion thoroughly enjoyed the performance. It’s not a show for most grade-schoolers, but bring your teenagers if they enjoy musical revues. They will have a great time like she did.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
The 50th Anniversary Old Time Musical Hall plays through June 28, 2014 at The British Players performing at Kensington Hall-3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, call (301) 838-0042, or purchase them online.