If you're going to stage an old-fashioned melodrama--with the brilliantined villain shooting his dark looks over the footlights, and the blond heroine spilling her pathetic supplications in the spectators' laps --Ford's Theatre is the proper place to do it.
Our only 19th-century playhouse, it was built to accommodate the kind of direct contact between audience and performer that makes melodrama both a hoot and a holler. The tilted stage brings the action right down front, while the balcony swoops forward eagerly to meet it. No invisible fourth wall here. So if "The Orphans' Revenge," the "new" old-fashioned melodrama that opened there Saturday night, turns out to be a rather lame affair, the blame belongs elsewhere.
Why someone would write an imitation 19th-century melodrama these days, when there are plenty of originals lying about, is a small mystery. That, however, is what Jan Casey, Suzanne Buhrer and Gene Casey have done, and it cannot be said that they accomplish significantly more in two hours on the stage than Carol Burnett and company once pulled off in 10 minutes of TV time.
Bedecked with 17 musical numbers, "The Orphans' Revenge" is loud and determined in its pursuit of whoop-de-do. It is also every bit as obvious as you fear it is going to be the instant the curtain rises on the tremulous heroine, a clutch of orphans, and a dastardly villain who is demanding $50 in mortgage money--which, if not paid, means the orphanage will be converted into a saloon.
It's not the stock situation that's so bothersome. Melodrama, after all, has its honored cliche's, and they're part of the charm. It's rather that the authors and a cast of no great skill fail to strike many original notes within the confines of that hoary situation. The songs are as bland as soap jingles. The lyrics are plainly of the June/moon school. As for humor, the best the show can do is to have a Mexican spitfire turn to a drum-beating temperance worker, who has invaded the saloon, and crack, "Take your drum and beat it!"
Performers of some inventiveness might be able to rise above this material, but too often the Ford's cast embraces it on its own pedestrian grounds. Director Allan Hunt has encouraged volume and velocity on the part of all--except maybe Uncle Ned, whose decrepit shuffle is, excuse the pun, one of the show's running gags. Otherwise, he settles for the timeworn ruts. Only Lindy Nisbet evinces much freshness (her frazzled interpretation suggests the heroine is not so much in a state of distress as in a state of electrocution).
The villain (Peter Shawn) reminded me of Burt Reynolds playing late-night party games. As the spitfire ("Choo must be yoking!"), Roxann Parker gives a "one-yoke" performance. James Reeder looks the square-jawed hero, but croaks his songs, while Suzanne Buhrer, the dance hall owner, cultivates the impression she is really working a Las Vegas lounge. They strike all the mandatory poses, but animate precious few of them. No one really believes in the excessive conventions on display, although that belief is a prerequisite to mocking them.
In the course of the evening's assorted ups and downs, the audience is invited to boo and cheer, and the opening-night crowd performed admirably. But that's the theater lending a helping hand again. You might feel out of place hissing in the Opera House. But at Ford's, which has bags of popcorn on every seat and the florid ghosts of great melodramas past lurking in the wings, a hiss couldn't come more naturally.
Let's hear it, folks. At least for the venerable playhouse.
THE ORPHANS' REVENGE. By Suzanne Buhrer, Gene Casey and Jan Casey. Directed by Allan Hunt; musical staging, Jay Smith; scenery, A. Clark Duncan; lighting, Neil Peter Jampolis; costumes, Madeline Ann Graneto. With Lindy Nisbet, Peter Shawn, Suzanne Buhrer, Roxann Parker, James Reeder, Gay Hagen, Lon Huber. Through March 28 at Ford's Theatre.