Flora the Red Menace

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Editorial Review

‘Flora’ doesn’t hit full bloom
By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

“Flora the Red Menace” is the rarely revived musical that John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote immediately before breaking through with "Cabaret" in the mid-1960s, so hard-core musical theater buffs may be drawn to the current production by 1st Stage at Tysons Corner.

This “Flora” may be only for the hard-core, though -- or the supremely soft-hearted or Kander and Ebb completists. The gently daffy song-and-dance show, which won a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli her first Tony Award, turns out to be too much for the newish troupe to handle.

The story follows a Depression-era gal who has a fling with a Manhattan chapter of the Communist Party. It’s a ditzy plot with an unsatisfying serious seam, but the score features some terrific numbers: the lovely “A Quiet Thing,” the hilarious “The Flame,” the nervy showstopper “Sing Happy.”

An appealing confidence occasionally flickers in Susan Devine’s small-scale production. Dani Stoller has New York moxie to spare as Flora, the brassy woman who falls for a sweet-natured Commie named Harry (Joshua Dick). Stoller brings sass to her punch lines; so does Sherry Berg in the broad, comic role of Charlotte, the Party over-achiever who has designs on Harry (and, as Charlotte sings in “The Flame,” on the world).

However, Berg's shtick sometimes sails unaccountably over the top, lacquered with fussy business that even this laughably lusty figure doesn’t need. Stoller is inconsistent, too; the brio she shows in David Thompson’s scenes (this is the revised script from 1987) oddly fades in song. Stoller so dramatically undersells Flora’s numbers that you fear she’s vocally ill or incapable. You change your mind when she belts “Sing Happy” to the rafters in an unsettlingly manic final turn.

The production makes no great claims visually; Judy Welihan’s costumes and Mark Krikstan’s warehouse-style set (wooden crates, grimy industrial windows) evoke the 1930s well enough. Stefan Sittig’s choreography treads lightly, except during a sprightly tap duet between minor characters Kenny (Sam Edgerly) and Maggie (Kelsey Meiklejohn). Musical director Paul Nasto has created orchestrations for seven instrumentalists nestled at the rear of the stage.

None of this is terribly assertive or alive; it’s the kind of naive production in which the oldest character is played by one of the youngest-looking actors. “Flora” may have been a flop, but it had charms and highlights that aren’t much showcased here.