Sick of cynicism, vitriol, and vulgarity? The British Players has an antidote: their 53rd Old Time Music Hall (directed by Malcolm Edwards and produced by Sue Edwards). The latest installment of their traditional Victorian Musical Comedy Revue at the Kensington Armory has cheer, chuckles, songs, lovely ladies, good-natured gents, and light entertainment aplenty.
British Music Hall, theatrical collections of comic songs and routines, reigned as the most popular form of communal entertainment through the Victorian era and the early 20th Century, until it was killed off by radio and cinema, like its American cousin, Vaudeville. In 1965, the British Players resurrected it on this side of the Pond, and it has been a Washington staple ever since.
This year’s show has an Anglo-French flavor, in honor of the centenary of the end of World War I. The songs are supposed to be English and old, but that rule is applied loosely, and even Irving Berlin puts in an appearance. The songs that are true to the period sound remarkably familiar, especially to patrons of a Certain Age, or those who appear to be old hands and sing along lustily in the audience participation portions. The songs that aren’t familiar are funny and equally engaging.
The mood is set as one comes into the theater, festooned with bunting, flowers, and British and American flags, and buzzing with barmaids in off-the-shoulder blouses carrying baskets of nibbles and drinks for the patrons (or punters, as they’re known over there), who sit at café-style tables.
The set, designed by Albert Coia, is light blue, with red pillars and white arches, festooned appropriately with velvet drapes. Spotlit center stage is a beautiful Royal Coat of Arms. The lighting, by Jim Robertson, is appropriate and not intrusive: mostly full or area lights, a spotlight, and some colored washes during some of the more – ahem – colorful numbers. The sound, too, by Matt Mills, suits the purpose (except for some opening night mic hiccups) – no mean feat given the unfamiliar and rapid-fire lyrics of many songs.
The costumes (designed by Nicola Hoag) are part of the fun. The ensembles range from natty black-and-white (à la Ascot in My Fair Lady), to elegant gray stripes, to sweet pastels, to patriotic tricolore at the end. The Bow Belles, six lovely dancers, wear outfits with skirts ranging from short to non-existent, but research reveals they are fairly period-appropriate, especially for the authentic Can-Can number. The charming hats are all perfectly tilted, and it is almost worth the price of admission just to see a gentleman in full white tie and tails.
All of this would be for naught, of course, if the performances weren’t up to snuff, but they certainly are. From the appropriately rinky-dink, three-piece orchestra to the beautiful harmonies (courtesy of Music Director Brock Holmes) of the Edwardian ensemble to the individual numbers that gave every member a chance to shine, the evening cake-walks along from sweet melody to humorous ditty to comic turn in quick and amusing succession. The choreography by Kay Casstevens is engaging and flawlessly executed, particularly the Bow Belles’ ditzy “I Love Me,” the tap number in the Berlin Medley, and the spectacular Can Can.
The Oh-La-La factor continues in several numbers by sizzling singers, including Serena Dib’s sweet pseudo-striptease to “There’s a Little Bit of Bad in Every Good Little Girl,” and the two scorching hoochie-coochie numbers by the evening’s Red Hot Mama, Bethany Blakey.
One of the delights of this show is the chance it gives for more seasoned performers to shine. Full-on Barbershop Quartet is a rare pleasure these days, but Chuck Hoag, George Krumbhaar, Doug Smith, and Steve Spriggs deliver. There are also multiple numbers by fine divas, including a funny “Sweet Mystery of Life” by Mimi Tessier and Albert Coia, a very moving “Annie Laurie” by Meghan Williams Elkins, and a gorgeous bilingual duet rendition of “My Man” during the Act I Finale.
And of course, what Variety show would be complete without silly comedy? This Music Hall has it in spades. From the tongue-twisting patter songs of “Proper Coffee Pot” and “The Pheasant Plucker,” to the cheerfully groan-inducing jokes of the MC, a.k.a. “Mr. Chairman,” Malcom Edwards, to the broadly-accented, fast-paced comedy routines of “The Comedian” Danny Brogan (apparently in his final year with the Players before going back to England, so catch him while you can) to the expert physical comedy in the ensemble song “Jobs,” or the side-splitting ditties of the “Cheeky Chappie,” Albert Coia, these fine performers will have you laughing anew at very old jokes.
Leave your modern sophistication at home. This is old-fashioned entertainment, full of eye-rolling jokes and harmless double-entendres from the era when girls were girls and chaps were chaps and no one minded a little harmless fun. (In fact, some terms might need translation for younger audience members: “fag” = cigarette, “gay” = lighthearted, “ejaculation” = exclamation, “queered” = thrown off.) Everyone on stage is having a gay old time – and you will too.
And if all that’s not reason enough, wine, beer, snacks, and soft drinks are included in your ticket price.
If you can recall what “cheeky” and “charming” mean, you need – you deserve – to see this show. So, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!”
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
The British Players’ 53rd Old Time Music Hall plays through June 23, 2018, at The Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.