Christopher Durang’s multilayered 1976 musical comedy (a Broadway hit in 1978; given a new ending in 1995) probes the identity of 20th-century America through Hollywood archetypes and popular movies. The five central players embody the clichés represented by various stars: tough guy James Cagney (who morphs into Bogie, Brando, et al.); perennial ingénue Loretta Young; good guy Henry Fonda; moll-vixen Bette Davis; and wise-cracking loser-at-love Eve Arden. Supporting them are more than 50 characters played by, in this case, 10 actors — changing color, gender, etc. as necessary.
Director John E. Lane Jr. heaps on the creative chaos with recent events, film clips and a movie “singalong” before curtain to introduce the cast and get the audience revved up. No, it’s not perfectly smooth, but there’s so much stuff coming so quickly — film references, double entendres, in jokes, out jokes — that plenty will surely tickle a funnybone. My favorite bit is Loretta (Colleen Garrison), in her sweet-and-innocent days, reciting Hollywood’s Hays Production Code as the values she admires and hopes to emulate. Later, the sadder-but-wiser Loretta vamps through the song “Euphemism for Sale,” upending the Code. (Credit Mel Marvin for History’s music, Durang for lyrics.)
Garrison anchors the many plot threads, looking for a happy ending as everyone around her chases different identities. Classic leading-man type Frank Schurter cruises through Jimmy and assorted personae, staying credible as the splintering storylines becomes less so. As Bette, Jill Jeffrey gleefully munches scenery, reenacting classic flicks from Citizen Kane to Dr. Strangelove. Nathaniel Yost (Hank), way more likable than Fonda, and Sarah Murtha (Eve) provide what passes for “sensible” people.