Today It’s easy to look at American musical theater, arguably the quintessential American art form, and see a troubling return to cynicism, snark, and vitriol. There’s a strong surge lately of latter-day musicals jam-packed with irony, pathos, and nihilism; this week’s Tony near-sweep by “The Book of Mormon” affirms some of that, despite its curiously earnest and reassuring message. The bottom line of all of this preamble is that sometimes you just crave an incredibly sweet bon-bon of a show in response to all of this, and Princeton Festival’s “The Boy Friend” fits that bill, in spades.
Set in the midst of the roaring ’20s, on the French Riviera, Sandy Wilson’s 1954 musical was designed as an homage to the beloved musical comedies of the 1920s (in particular, it owes more than a little bit to the canon of Rodgers and Hart). The original London production held the stage debut of Julie Andrews.
Madame Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies is an upper-crust boarding school, educating the daughters of Europe’s elite. Seventeen-year-old Polly Browne and her quartet of friends pine for boyfriends of their own, only to have those needs each met with a suitor. Polly herself falls for Tony, a poor delivery boy, which leads to its own hand-wringing antics of socioeconomic status and desire. Polly’s widowed father reconnects with Madame Dubonnet. There’s also the elderly Lord and Lady Brockhurst (she’s a bit crotchety, he’s a horndog, somehow it works); an overblown French maid named Hortense; and a bit of mistaken identity and sudden revelation amidst a costumed ball that gives us a sextet of marriage proposals at the end. It’s delightfully cornball, and naturally there are no surprises in how the story itself unfolds.
But we’re not here for the surprises; we’re here to have some fun and take in some wonderful performances. First and foremost is Andrew Betz’s Tony, chock-full of impish charm and good looks. He nails the “golly-gee” positivity at the core of “The Boy Friend” from his first entrance, and in the midst of his first number with Polly, “I Could Be Happy With You,” a little bit of subtle early-on choreography gives us a hint of the treat we’re about to receive. Betz’s tap-dancing explodes onto stage shortly thereafter, and his capabilities are nothing short of breathtaking (more on the choreography below).
Also of particular note are Robert Mackasek’s Percy and Christine Egan’s Mme. Dubonnet. They make great foils for each other, as a flirty couple whose spark reignites late in life. Egan’s playful aggressiveness is a lot of fun to watch, and Mackasek makes the brave choice of playing Percy as if he himself is surprised to be in a musical. It works spectacularly, though, and I spent the majority of their scenes together with a dopey grin stuck on my face.
Diana Basmajian’s direction wisely harnesses the talents of the team at her disposal and lets them do their thing. Her work is understated and well-presented and lets the choreography in particular really shine. And here’s the real gem of the show — the nigh-legendary Graham Lustig’s work on this production is worth the price of admission, all by itself. Lustig possesses the uncanny ability to tell beautiful, layered stories in his work, and the athleticism and adventurous spirits of the cast are fully on display. There’s a LOT of the Charleston in here, as befits the period, but there are also these wonderful little moments of interaction, and tiny gestures often blossom into breathtaking dance numbers. All of this is enhanced by the intimacy of the Matthews Acting Studio, which places the unbridled choreography very nearly in your lap. It’s a rare treat to see such work up close.
There is a lot to love about this production; that’s not to say it’s not without the occasional questionable choice or two. Rachel Handler’s Polly is played as if she’s markedly older and less interesting than her fellow classmates. She comes across more as a supervisor of the other girls than a contemporary, and it’s perhaps a flaw in the writing that I just couldn’t quite stomach why Tony falls for her. Maybe this is the sort of on-paper leading-lady blandness that requires a young Meg Ryan-type to fix; while Handler is clearly talented in both voice and expression, it’s a mismatch here. Marie Miller’s costumes also vacillate between gorgeously period-appropriate and ghoulishly clown-like, which pulls one out of the story from time to time.
These are only minor blips on an otherwise great summer treat. I’m fairly certain musicals aren’t made quite like this anymore because the 21st century lifestyle can’t quite support this worldview; that said, the Princeton Festival’s presentation is both a lovely example of a nostalgia-rife time capsule and a solid evening’s entertainment.
“The Boy Friend,” Princeton Festival, through Saturday, June 25, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Musical directed by Diana Basmajian with choreography by Graham Lustig. $45. 609-759-0379 or www.princetonfestival.org