Near the end of "Dear Desperate," Tim Grundmann's new comedy musical, the heroine finds herself in the toils of the villain on a foot propelled swan boat. They move jerkily and ludicrously through Luna Park's tunnel of love, with her swain, parents and police in not-too-hot pursuit.
It is a rollicking funny scene. For that matter, much of "Dear Desperate" is a delight -- a good-natured, old-fashioned, sentimental musical with saucy lyrics, sprightly tunes and amiable humor. It will brighten the state of the New Playwrights' Theatre through Feb. 28.
"Dear Desperate" is a departure from Grundmann's earlier crazy spoofs and drolleries with dancing cheese boxes and skiing nuns. But don't despair. There is still a touch of zaniness in this romantic musical set in 1915 a time of innocence, when young ladies went to finsihing school to learn to set a tea table, women wore long skirts and spats, and suitors took their dates to the flickers to see Mary Pickford.
The story line is unadulterated romantic sentiment. Mrs. Brown, the Ann Landers of her day with a popular lovelorn column, unwitingly dispenses advice that leads to a rash of comic misunderstandings. First, she counsels "Dear Desperate" (who is really her daughter, Myrtle) to flirt coyly to catch the attention of an oblivious young man (who is really Mrs. Brown's assistant at the newspaper). Recognizing the handwriting. Mrs. Brown takes "Dear Desperate" to be her maid, Bridget who she thinks has taken a shine to the Irish cop on the beat.
Then there is Mrs. Brown's advice to the correspondent who signs himself "Reluctant Cad." Go back to the wife and child you abandoned years ago, she writes in her column. Reluctant Cad turns out to be her long gone husband, whose absence has been explained by Mrs. Brown with a cover story that he died while on a reporting assignment on the battleship Maine. And finally there is "Yrs. Truley," the villain of the piece, who wants to kill the lovelorn columnist because he lost his girl when he followed her advice to own up to his shady past.
All this leads to lovely confusion.
It is Grundmann's score that makes "Dear just a pleasant old-fashioned musical comedy. He is a genuinely gifted composer and lyricist.
He can write a lilting melodic song like "What If She's Awfully Pretty," a tune that you'll be humming as you leave the theater. There are the sophisticated harmonies of "In the Park," when three other young ladies turn up in Washington Square with parasols and copies of "Pride and Prejudice" for Myrtle's rendezvous with the young man unaware of her identity. "I Was Thinking of You," sung by Mrs. Brown and her errant husband, is witty and wise with more than an echo of Sondheim sophistication.
The cast carries this off with bouncy, amiable good humor. As Kevin, the reluctant suitor, Wayne Anderson is the picture of a bashful, serious-minded young man with his mid-parted hair, argyle sweater, and steel rimmed glasses.He even can stand bashfully, his toes pointed together, doing a balancing act on the balls of his feet.
Tonette Hartmann is properly naive as the ingenue and very funny when she tries to play a Theda Bara vamp. As the efficient lovelorn columnist, Tanis Roach is bit starchy at times. Barbara Rappaport is the Irish maid and had a fine time singing "Don't You Hate It/ Don't You Love It" after a night out with the cop on the beat.
It takes a while for "Dear Desperate" to get moving on the Stage. Director Harry M. Bagdasian might speed things along at the outset. The costume and set designs add to the nostalgic glow of the production.
"Dear Desperate" will run through Feb. 28 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. A special Valentine's Day matinee is scheduled at 2 p.m. Feb. 14. The New Playwrights' Theatre is at 1742 Church St. NW.