As a whole, Interact Theatre Company's latest offering, "The Very Model of a Major Merry Music Hall," doesn't work as well as the troupe's previous offering--"Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush," also a piece of music hall entertainment, which was delightfully silly from beginning to end. But "Very Model" does have some deliriously inspired moments that transport you, if only sporadically, to another place and time.
Specifically, England of the late 19th century and early 20th: Music hall began as lowbrow pub entertainment for the working man and his family. Belly laughs--provoked by broad and sometimes bawdy skits, songs and routines--were the fare. In Arena Stage's Old Vat Theater, designer Carl F. Gudenius has reprised his authentic-looking set for the Old Bull and Bush, a fictitious London pub where, per tradition, the hired help stages the show.
But director Catherine Flye, who's also principal architect of "Very Model," has added a clever twist. Combining contemporary dialogue of her own with a variety of appropriate numbers from several Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas (not to mention one of their short "dramatic cantatas" in its entirety), Flye has concocted a satirical pastiche that's billed as a "new" G&S comedy debuting at the Old Bull and Bush.
This play-within-a-play, called "The Merryman and His Maids," involves the tribulations of one William Washington Clinker (David Grimes), a Clintonesque figure who has a problem with women bearing names like Jennifer Flowerpot (Karen Paone), Kathleen Willy Nilly (Frank Robinson Jr.), Belinda Tripple (Dori Legg), Paulina Symington-Jones (Margie Tompros) and the beret-sporting Ramona Lewinsbury (Rebecca Davis). Meanwhile, his wife, Felicity Prodem Clinker (Julie McKinstry, alternating in the role with Deborah Thurlow), suffers him in a way you might find reminiscent of a certain first lady.
Some of the numbers from "HMS Pinafore" and "The Mikado," for example, fit well with the Clinker story, either as the authors originally wrote them or with some slight adjustment. The problem is that ultimately the various pieces don't quite come together. Despite the unifying thread of the Clinker tale, you still sense a patchwork narrative.
As a result, the seams show--perhaps inevitably, given that the music hall format is better suited to presenting individual bits--as "Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush" did--than to telling a cumulative story. And without any sustained momentum, the evening is just an occasionally boisterous revue rather than the rollicking ride that music hall fare should be.
Still, those occasions feature some exquisitely uproarious acting and impressive singing, particularly from Legg, Grimes, McKinstry, David Neal, Tim Brierley and Timothy R. King. Linda Garner Miller's choreography drolly animates Flye's witty and energetic direction, and Rosemary Pardee's costumes hit all the right notes.
At its best, "Very Model" hits a tone best exemplified by a program note: "The public is respectively informed, that . . . the lessee has, regardless of expense, engaged Mr. Burlington Bertie [also played by Legg] to represent the whole body of the chorus, rendering at least fifty-nine male voices entirely unnecessary." It just doesn't hit it consistently.
The Very Model of a Major Merry Music Hall by Catherine Flye, assisted by David Savage, and based on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Lighting, Carl F. Gudenius. With Genna L. Griffith and Elizabeth Stripe. Through Sept. 5 at Arena Stage's Old Vat Theater. Call 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: David Neal, left, Tim Brierley and David Grimes satirize a certain president.