Review: ‘Old Time Music Hall’ by The British Players

It’s June, a time for anniversaries, celebrations and commemorations. Where can you simultaneously look back with fond nostalgia at British pluck and cheek, and party for Pride month? How about at The British Players’ Old Time Music Hall (directed and choreographed by Teri Klein Allred and produced by Carol Strachan). This current version of their traditional Victorian Musical Comedy Revue at the Kensington Armory combines a celebration of the 55th Anniversary of the British Players with some modern ideas into an altogether charming whole.

Missi Tessier, Matt Craun, and Joe Lilek perform
Missi Tessier, Matt Craun, and Joe Lilek perform “Be My Little Baby Bumblebee” in The British Players’ Old Time Music Hall. Photo by Simmons Design.

British Music Hall, much like Vaudeville on this side of the pond, is a theatrical revue of lighthearted and romantic songs and comic routines that was a staple entertainment through the Victorian era and the early 20th century. It presents sweet melodies, corny comedy, delightful dancing girls, close-harmony quartets, rousing audience participation numbers, and sassy barmaids in a café setting with drinks and snacks included in your ticket price.

The Kensington Town Hall is very appropriately decorated by Set Designer Albert Coia to look like a well-to-do civic building in a British country town, with fleurs-de-lys on the walls and swagged and fringed velvet draperies. But in contrast to previous years, the center of the stage is taken up by a vivid projection screen, which shows a chandelier and paneled wall when it is not displaying the lyrics to old favorite songs (Sound Design and Projections by Matt Mills), with which the audience, Music Hall virgins and veterans alike, are encouraged to sing lustily along. The lighting, by Jim Robertson, is just as it should be, right down to the honest-to-goodness footlights.

Nicola Hoag’s costumes are once again delightful, a great many variations on ice-cream pastels, stripes and hats. There is a lovely number, reminiscent of Brigadoon, with touches of tartan and red roses. Black and white ensembles á la My Fair Lady make an appearance, plus full-blown “Pearlie” costumes — traditional black outfits covered in designs made from mother-of-pearl buttons like you might see in Me and My Girl — for the “Cockney Finale.” And for anyone following the sartorial faux pas at the State Dinner in London recently, it is a pleasure to see a gentleman wearing full white tie and tails — correctly.

But the most interesting costume choices begin in the second act, with a charming number “Masculine Women and Feminine Men” where the female cast members step out in top hats and tails, and the males in fetching sequined wraps and blonde wigs. This is followed by the delightfully gay (in every sense) “Why Do the Men Run After Me?,” with the excellent and elegant Joe Lilek decked out in an incomparable gown in full Diva mode. Whereas once these numbers might have seen merely as jokes, there is a genuine joy in their presentation here that highlights both how gender fluidity has always been with us, and how far we have come in celebrating it. Happy Pride Month!

The music, under the capable direction of Arielle Bayer, is everything it should be. The three-piece Palace Variety Orchestra (Bayer, John-Marc Diner and the vibrantly coiffed Mayumi Griffin) adeptly support the festivities. The voices, from the harmonious ensemble numbers to the gorgeously tuned Barbershop and Beautyshop Quartets (how marvelous to have both!) to beautiful solo numbers such as Susan Dye’s “After the Ball,” are lovely.   

Some of the most breathtaking numbers involve Bayer’s music combined with Allred’s choreography — such as “My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose” where Stevie Miller sings a plaintive ballad accompanied by a tender ballet solo by Abigail Kruger (who also choreographs the piece). Kruger features again in a hotter “Who’s Sorry Now,” her spectacular, almost gymnastic dancing accompanied by sizzling vocals from Erin Cassidy and Kristin Franco.

And then, of course, there are the comic numbers. Throwing themselves fully into turns like “Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee” (the sublimely silly Missi Tessier with Matt Craun and Joe Lilek) and the traditional “Pheasant Pluckers” (yes, it’s just what it sounds like) and “Jobs” (physical comedy at its best), the cast wins us over with their clownish conviction.

Albert Coia performs a number in The British Players' Old Time Music Hall. Photo by Simmons Design.
Albert Coia performs a number in The British Players’ Old Time Music Hall. Photo by Simmons Design.

In comic solos, no one can hold a candle to Albert Coia, who returns as the “Cheeky Chappie” with extended double entendres like “I’ve Got a Little Dickie,” channels Bert Lahr in “Because” and plays sublimely drunk in “The Night That She Cried in My Beer.” And as the emcee, “Mr. Chairman” Malcolm Edwards tells endless strings of barely smutty jokes.  These are not Dad Jokes, they’re Great-Grandad jokes, and they sound fresh in their relative innocence compared to most humor today. It is this gleeful naughtiness that gives the show so much charm.

In fact, this appreciation of the chronologically well-endowed is one of Old Time Music Hall’s chief attractions. The antepenultimate number is Catherine Hackett’s delightful “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty,” a tongue-in-cheek lament by a long-in-the-tooth sprite. But the number itself (pun intended) proves her wrong. The average age on this stage may well be over 40, and why not? 50 is the new 30. Just as no one gives a whit who’s masculine or feminine, no one gives a hoot who’s young and who’s not. As long as they’re having wholehearted fun, you will too.

At the British Players’ Old Time Music Hall, everything old is new again, and it’s just what we need.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The British Players’ Old Time Music Hall plays through June 22, 2019, at The Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online.

The Edwardians: Erin Cassidy, Kristin Franco, Catherine Hackett, Ellen Kaplan, Jill Scharff, Missi Tessier, Matt Craun, Tyler Hanson, Joe Lilek, Doug Smith, Steve Spriggs, Robert Teachout

The Bow Belles: Sue Edwards, Abigail Kruger, Stevie Miller, Jamie Sinks

With George Krumbhaar and Susan Dye, and featuring Albert Coia as The Cheeky Chappie and Malcolm Edwards as Mr. Chairman.

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past four decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters and programs and generally theatrically meddled in Maryland, Princeton, London, and Switzerland. She has made a specialty of playing old bats – no, make that “mature, empowered women” – including Mama Rose in Gypsy, the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer, Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow-actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd – when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.” Her most recent indomitable female was in a student-directed film where she played the monster Grendel’s Mother – a role last embodied on film by Angelina Jolie in a CGI coat of gold paint; Jennifer took it in a rather different direction. (She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; actually she is quite easy-going. Really). She has also directed shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies, and most recently Woody Allen’s Mr. Big in the MP One Acts Festival. She is also the Publicity and Promotions Director for Montgomery Playhouse. In real life she is a speechwriter and editor.