Corrections or additions?

This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the May 23, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Victor & the Virgin’

By some definitions, a good theatergoing experience

should consist of an interesting story, with enough philosophy in

it to keep one on one’s toes. It should also be rich in theatricality

— or at least be visually interesting — and, if you’re lucky,

it might have a little poetry in the dialogue.

"Victor and the Virgin," Passage Theater Company’s current

production of a new play by Thomas G. Dunn, goes light on all counts.

Its thin story (based on fact, but mostly fiction) never goes beyond

what is politically correct, wrapped in a theatricality that makes

one yearn for the lecture hall. And with lines like "music is

in my blood," one need hardly mention poetry at all.

The play is set in 1920s New Orleans where we find Tom Flynn (Brennan

Brown), a recording engineer, in the midst of a talent search for

hot young jazz artists he hopes to record for the Victor Talking

Machine

Company. Although he has already auditioned a number of musicians,

he has his eye on a jazz band called "The Hot Sevens" that

features a young cornet player named Louis Armstrong.

Flynn encounters a young singing hopeful named Connee Perente (Lori

Prince), a pixie-like nymphet straight out of the Louisiana bayou,

who is not above using a little sexual persuasion in order to be

signed

by the Victor Company. Flynn is reluctant to dabble in her charms.

When she persists, he tries to explain that he cannot record her and

her band because they are of "mixed race." The times being

what they are, he is only permitted to record white musicians and

to do otherwise would be risking his job.

But Flynn is caught in a conundrum after Connee explains that only

three of "The Hot Sevens" are going to be available to him.

Of the other four, two are Creole and two are African American,

including

the great Louis Armstrong.

Does Flynn take the safe path and record only inferior white

musicians?

Or does he follow his heart and record the great multi-ethnic talent

around him and risk his job? When amorous sparks fly between Flynn

and Connee, the pressure to do the right thing builds in him to an

unmanageable level.

The problem with "Victor and the Virgin" is not that it’s

a two character play, but that it’s about the wrong two people.

Neither

Flynn nor Connee are nearly as interesting as Louis Armstrong, whom

the play relegates to a brief cornet solo, performed while hidden

in an alleyway. He’s never seen. Both Tom Flynn and Connee Perente

are unremarkable and paper thin. They seem like they’d be more

comfortable

strolling in the mall than standing at a crossroads of history.

Also, for a play that professes to be based around its characters’

mutual passion for music, there is remarkably little music to be

heard.

Most strikingly, the character of Connee Perente never sings a note,

although we are asked to take on faith that she has an amazing singing

voice. Other music is relegated to the background, always muted, with

characters talking over the top. One wishes they would quit jabbering

about the importance of the music and just listen for a moment or

two.

Lori Prince as Connee Perente has a strikingly

child-like

quality, a quintessential kid sister. Despite the fact that she keeps

stating that she is of legal age, however, when she shifts into

seduction-mode

things get uncomfortable. Most unsettling is Prince’s odd habit of

lunging about the stage for no obvious reason, then suddenly stopping

short, as if she’d just run into an invisible fence.

Brennan Brown plays the timidly ambitious Tom Flynn like someone in

the middle of a joke that he doesn’t quite understand. Always stern,

at full throttle, neither Brown nor his character seem to be having

much fun. Flynn’s initial caution when being propositioned by the

girlish Connee does not abate after they’ve done the sexual deed.

If anything, Brown makes his character become more rigid. In fact,

it is hard to fathom how Connee could be attracted to Tom, a preachy

stick-in-the-mud who’s unworthy of her devotion.

To his credit, director Russell Kaplan tries to instill life where

there is little. But he cannot overcome the thinness of the story

and the corniness of the dialogue.

Whatever success the production does have is largely due to scenic

designer Vicki Davis. Her beautifully designed set is one of the

production’s

strong points. Using everything from antique telephones to a statue

of Nipper the Dog, she creates an ambiance that immediately

familiarizes

the audience with the world of the play, employing a careful attention

to detail that has an impact without overstating itself.

The historical moment of "Victor and the Virgin" seems rife

with theatrical possibilities. And since the play is still described

as "a work in progress," there’s cause for hope. But a quick

fix seems unlikely. Like its hero Tom Flynn, the work is too darn

wishy-washy in the face of the bold challenges of its subject.

— Jack Florek

Victor and the Virgin, Passage Theater Company,

Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton,

609-392-0766.

$15 to $20. To Sunday, May 27.


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