Acting like The Little Engine That Could, Little Mary Sunshine ran 1143 performances Off Off Broadway in 1959 while such as The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Fiorello and The Most Happy Fella played uptown. The piece is a send up of the operetta-like work of such as Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. As one might expect, its plot is silly and simple, direction stylized, tunes pleasant, if too many. Without just the right amount of affectionate tongue-in-cheek, it would either drown in sugar or fall flat.
I’m happy to report the Musicals Tonight production is cute, well sung (collectively some of the best voices in the series, helmed and harmonized by Vocal Arranger, James Stenborg) and skillfully directed to bring out its wink, wink charm. Almost all the large cast eschews mugging for brief, well constructed freeze frames and aesthetically contrived gestures. Tableaux vivants have charm. Twosomes relate to one another.(Director: Thomas Sabella-Mills)
Captain Jim (Jacob L. Smith) – think baritone Dudley Do-Right – and his forest rangers bivouac at a Colorado Inn owned by Little Mary Sunshine (Sarah Ziegler). The adopted daughter of Chief Brown Bear (Ryan Hilliard), she, the chief, and Fleet Foot (Jay Paranada) – think imitation Tim Conway, the only other remaining member of the Kadota Indian Tribe, are about to be evicted in a government land dispute. Optimistic Mary remains unfazed: When a cloud of gray/Seems to waft your way/Look for a sky of blue oo oo oo.
Our rangers are in search of the renegade Yellow Feather (Lee Hollis Bussie) and his men who have been killing game and causing forest fires. Captain Jim is sweet on Mary. His second in command, Billy (Devin Illaw), is sweet on Mary’s maid, Nancy (Savannah Frazier) – think Oklahoma!’s Ado Annie – she can’t say no to men.
Also occupying the inn are four girls from Eastchester Finishing School at first snobby about, then engaged to the rangers and Madame Ernestine (Joan Barber), a semi-retired, German opera singer on vacation “Breeze deep! Iz good for you.” Later, for little dramatic reason, ranger commander, Oscar Fairfax (Lawrence Asher) arrives spurring the men on, flirting with the girls, and reconnecting with Madame. Needless to say, there’s a happy ending.
Almost all the songs seem to emulate particular numbers from operetta melodramas, but two might salute more modern musicals. There’s a song about becoming an Indian a la “Ugg A Wugg” (I’m an Indian too) from Peter Pan and one describing a misremembered romantic encounter a la “I Remember It Well” from Gigi. There are comic songs like Nancy’s rather self conscious Who would spy and get her data/By doing this and thata/ Mata…and Madame Ernestine’s incomparable, deadpan “In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essenzook Zee” with perfect, rolling r inflection; requisite, waltzy ballads; a soft shoe; and some nifty choral counterpoint.
Sarah Ziegler (Mary Sunshine) projects obtuse innocence as if born to the genre. An excellent comedienne, Ziegler moves gracefully, and has an attractive mezzo voice; all talents imbued with deft timing. The actress takes her role to the edge of satire, but never over. In context, she makes Mary credible. An appealing performance.
Jacob L. Smith (Captain Jim) offers a solid, square-shouldered hero. He has a lovely, well moderated, baritone voice and though less fluid than Ziegler, manages the freeze frames with sweet believability. Smith visibly registers emotion and quickly moves on adding nuance to a role in which there’s little opportunity for subtlety.
Devin Ilaw (Billy) is boyishly enthusiastic. The character’s uncomplicated natures comes through. Joan Barber (Ernestine) is simply divine. She IS old school European, feminine, watchful, and genteel. Barber’s accent is a pleasure to hear, her mid range vocals filled with warmth and style. Every gesture is that of her character. A pristine interpretation.
Costumes are more elaborate than usual. Mary resembles Little Bo Peep and the Forest Rangers appear to be Canadian Mounties in uniforms on loan from The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players. Indians wear tv-traditional tawny buckskin. The ladies are swathed in ongepotchket print patterns, eye catching if not period correct. Wigs (especially Mary’s inspired pigtails) are excellent.
Also featuring: James Erickson, Kevin Patrick Martin, Ryan Speakman, and Michael Jayne Walker as Rangers; Lynn Craig, Chelsie Nectow, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, and Catie Shelley as finishing school girls.
Photos by Michael Portantiere
1. James Erickson, Kevin Patrick Martin, Sarah Ziegler, Ryan Speakman, Michael Jayne Walker
2. Jacob L. Smith, Sarah Ziegler
3. Joan Barber, left, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, Catie Shelley,Lynn Craig, Chelsea Nectow, right
4. Devin Illaw and Savannah Frazier
Musicals Tonight presents
Little Mary Sunshine by Rick Besoyan
Directed and Choreographed by Thomas Sabella-Mills
Music Director/Vocal Arranger-James Stenborg
The Lion Theatre 410 West 42nd St.
Through March 16, 2014
Next: For Goodness Sake by George & Ira Gershwin March 18-30
America’s Sweetheart by Rodgers & Hart April 1-13, 2014