At first glance, Play On! Draws immediate parallels to that king among stage farces, Noises Off. Both are comedic depictions of doomed theatrical productions, and utilize plays-within-plays, British dialects, quick entrances and exits, and madcap chaos building toward an inevitable disastrous climax; even the name is clearly an homage. Rick Abbot, one of the pen names for prolific community theatre playwright Jack Sharkey, has written a very funny play with a few pacing issues, and the Player’s season 102 opener does a mostly great job tackling the ins and outs.
When a strapped-for-cash community theatre agrees to produce an original murder mystery by a local playwright, they soon get more than they bargained for. The playwright agrees to let them do the show royalty-free, but unfortunately is ready and willing to constantly meddle in the production. Add the usual cast of strong personalities onstage and off recognizable to any amateur actor, and you have a recipe for disaster!
This is a spectacular cast. Debbie Lake as scene-stealing Polly Benish is an obvious standout, with excellent comic timing and hilarious facial expressions - her crystal clear voice never seemed too shouty and her dialect was excellent. Spectacular dialects were also delivered by chameleon William McCartney, who essentially played three different characters, wore a ridiculous fake beard and ran a scene “drunk,” all of which are extremely difficult to act through; McCartney does a fantastic job. Leeds Bird as meddling playwright Phillip Montague does not disappoint, channeling a fussiness and calm, pedantic demeanor that nicely contrasts with the manic energy of the actors. Steven Axtell also has excellent division between his “real” character and the role he is playing, hitting some very funny physical comedy in a delightfully natural way. Newcomer Jean Ciampi also channels hilarious physicality to her role, telling us a lot about her without many lines. The rest of the cast also does an excellent job - there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch. They play off of each other nicely and avoid the “sameness” that can come with farcical acting.
Director Judy Harper did an excellent job on casting, and the show is staged competently. I did find myself wishing for a few more physical gags, especially in the first act, which dragged a little. Farce is challenging, requiring pitch-perfect choreography for falls, dives, and “mistakes” that need to look organic and feel high-stakes, while in reality being perfectly controlled. This is where Play On! misses the mark a bit, occasionally appearing to fall into real chaos and odd pacing, especially in the earlier acts of the show. At 2 hours and 30 minutes with two ten-minute intermissions, the show also runs long - again, this is mostly due to a top heavy first act, and probably some opening night jitters.
Sound by Tom Randolph is a production standout in this show. Not only were all actors mic'd to perfection but there were no delays in sound cues, resulting in some very funny moments. Also good were lights by David Newsham, although I occasionally found the use of mild house lighting to be a little distracting from the onstage action. Costumes (Joy Butler, Raegan Woodwiss, Doris Perry, and Elizabeth Dewey) were in keeping with the tone of the show and provided some good laughs, and makeup by Carrie Butler was appropriately over-the-top. Set Design and Decoration by Erin Frye and Jim and Kathy Pawloski was also appropriate for the theme of the show. Props by Jim Pawloski were also good, although I did wish for a cap gun instead of a sound effect for one of the climatic scenes to add clarity and push things a little further.
Harper says in her director’s notes that “art very often imitates life!” Luckily for all involved, Play On! is a much more successful and entertaining production than the fictional show Murder Most Foul. As audience members filed out of the packed theatre last night, they were nothing but smiles. Pacing issues aside, with an all star cast, strong director, and excellent production team, it’s no surprise that Play On! delivers a delightful evening of theatre.
Play On! runs from 10/4-10/13. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $10 for students; they can be purchased through the Bay City Players box office at (989) 893-5555 or visiting baycityplayers.org.