Mad Cat Theatre Company opened its production of Neil Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl at the Miami Theater Center’s Sandbox Studio on January 8, 2015.
Mad Cat Theatre Company unleashes its 15th season with the politically charged romantic comedy The Star-Spangled Girl by Neil Simon. An unlikely fit at first glance, this 1960's piece depicts a country polarized after the hangover of the hippie generation’s summer of love. Now, re-examined by Mad Cat, the play will be deconstructed to take place in 2066, with temperatures rising and political tensions mounting; the action underscored by narration and live music.
Paul Tei directed a cast that featured Jessic Farr, Theo Reyna, and Noah Levine.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
The cutting-edge Mad Cat Theatre Company’s take on Neil Simon’s The Star Spangled Girl probably comes pretty close to the troupe’s intent to radically deconstruct a freeze-dried example of the Broadway boulevard comedy circa 1966.
Indeed, this mashup elicited plenty of laughs – resulting both from the revisionist spin at 2000 rpm and from the classic comic paradigms that Simon was a master at crafting. Most folks opening night, including us, were giggling and guffawing.
That said, this exercise in stylistic schizophrenia didn’t land solidly as its creators hoped because you can either embrace Simon or distance yourself. It seems you can’t completely succeed at doing both simultaneously. These styles are at war with each other, undercutting each’s effectiveness.
Mad Cat director Paul Tei and his company did not change the basic script. Simon’s wordplay and sit-com situations are intact if buried. This is crucial to understanding how this production eventually played out on stage.
…Tei set the show in 2066 when America is edging into a technologically deteriorating dystopia. He added a two-piece band that commented on the humor with percussive rim-shots and sardonic wah-wah guitar licks. Each character sing solos at a microphone with what we assume were intentional flat and off-key notes. A narrator read the stage directions aloud after which the actors performed the previously described actions. Take that, Neil.
Most emblematic of the Mad Cat vision (major spoiler alert, at least we think it is ) is Tei turned Sophie from an All-American golden girl from the small town South into what many audience members assumed for the first hour was a malfunctioning robot…The kicker is (here comes the spoiler) at the end of the first act when she… sings Linda Ronstadt’s 1977 hit “Blue Bayou” with one word changed when describing her yearning to go home – Blue Bayou is a planet. If you catch that one word, you realize that Tei’s Sophie is an alien.
The trick here, as with many Mad Cat shows, is to jettison your preconceptions, meet the show more than halfway and enjoy the ride for what it is. That accomplished, the show is somewhat entertaining
Jessica Farr… was technically impressive as Sophie. Her performance on its own terms was enhanced by the aforementioned physicality and vocal intonations that she delivered so skillfully. Whether she or Tei came up with the idea, her Sophie drolly butchered the pronunciation of certain words such as “booooss” for bus. These kind of Mad Cat embellishments of Simon’s script were consistently amusing once you accepted the alien conceit.
Noah Levine… was wonderfully out of control as an over the top love-struck clown in both the classic theatrical sense as well as the Barnum and Bailey sense. Seemingly powered by some nuclear conflagration inside, Levine not only pulled out all the stops but ripped them out of the organ, his tall and gangly body flying all over the apartment. Levine’s Norman was a daffy and demented creature whose rubber long limbs were always in motion when they weren’t posed as some absurd angle. He was downright hilarious.
Theo Reyna… had the straight man role whose humor is deeply rooted in Simonesque banter. But Reyna played Andy in a somber, phlegmatic manner, especially contrasted with Levine’s manic mein. This would have worked well in another play.
The amazing aspect is that Simon’s writing is so strong and those ancient rhythms so deeply burned into our consciousness that we impose them anyway in our aural perception, So it’s still pretty damn funny.
The production itself revels in the delightfully profligate imagination that is a Mad Cat hallmark, from the music provided by the Space Heaters (Brian Sayre and Stephen G. Anthony who doubles as the narrator) and a lot of sound effects by Matt Corey laid in precisely by production stage manager Veronica Soderman.
Best of all are the phantasmagorical costumes by Karelle Levy... Levy has Andy wearing variations on post-grunge post-slacker garb. But her wardrobe for the alien Sophie are sparkly, furry and exactly what an alien might buy for herself at a thrift store. Finally, Norman is dressed in an increasingly outrageous array of orange, peach, electric red and yellow outfits…
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
…more than a few minds were blown when Mad Cat announced its just-opened production, Neil Simon’s 1966 comedy The Star-Spangled Girl… But of course, with Tei at the helm, Mad Cat’s Star-Spangled Girl is unlike any earlier production of the politically-tinged comedy.
…the play is faithful to Simon’s dialogue, with one small exception that makes a big difference: Instead of being set in 1966, The Star-Spangled Girl now takes place in 2066. So dates that the characters mention are altered… but the three-act play Simon wrote (yes, three acts with two intermissions) is what the audience hears. Yet this is not your mom’s or grandma’s Star-Spangled Girl.
Sophie is where the production gets its Mad Cat on. Farr plays her as either an alien (of the interplanetary variety) or an android; in any case, she’s not of this world. Given her stiffened bent arms and robotic speech, I’m betting android, but Farr’s delivery is consistent and effective, so the choice works.
Dressed by costume designer Karelle Levy in wacky, wildly colorful outfits… Levine is a wiry eccentric as Norman, as manic as a successfully functioning human being can be before medical intervention becomes a necessity.
Reyna’s Andy is Norman’s opposite, as Felix and Oscar were in The Odd Couple. The actor’s low-key, droll delivery makes him the ideal foil for Levine, and the two have the chemistry needed for The Star-Spangled Girl to work.
Tei is inventive in other ways, adding a musical duo dubbed The Space Heaters, with Stephen G. Anthony as the singer-guitarist and Brian Sayre on drums... The band also gives the actors a chance to croon short solos, including Farr’s Blue Bayou, which becomes more an ode to a planet than a place. Anthony also serves as the show’s sporadic narrator, reading stage directions that give a little more insight into the situation and characters.
…The Star-Spangled Girl has enough sparkle and artistic swagger that the improbable Mad Cat gamble pays off.
Roger Martin reviewed for Miami ArtZine:
Hit or miss, Paul Tei's Mad Cat Theatre Company does not play by the rules. To provoke, to be different is a theme apparent in every show and in Neil Simon's Star-Spangled Girl, currently playing at MTC's SandBox, they've taken a minor piece by the master and "re-examined" and "deconstructed" it, shifting it from 1966 to 2066. The Simon jokes remain, untouched.
Levine's Norman, in eyeball blistering clothing, a demented stick insect flailing through a failed love affair, Reya's Andy, the straight man worrier and Farr's Sophie, the All-American girl who might just be an android, work well together. The fight between the two men is an hilarious highlight and Farr's sense of humor shines through her robotic speech and movement.
Director Tei has added music and narration to the piece. Stephen G. Anthony, Slash reincarnate, plays guitar, steel guitar and bass. He also sings and narrates. Brian Sayre is the drummer, and the two back up the actors, who each have a brief song. Anthony and Sayre also provide the many rim shots.
It's a three act evening, a lot of laughter, not too much political posturing, and with a faint sense of straining to be different.
The Mad Cat Theatre Company production of Neil Simon’s The Star Spangled Girl plays at the Miami Theater Center’s Sandbox Studio through January 25, 2015.
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