Ken Ludwig’s farce Moon Over Buffalo takes place backstage at the Erlanger Theatre in 1953. For the North Coast Rep, Marty Burnett’s set is so authentic, it could have been transported by time machine from the original green room. Along with the requisite five doors for farce, he has a wall of fame: so many photos (Brando, Hepburn, Bogart) and posters (Oklahoma!, Show Boat) there’s no room for more. The set’s so dense with period detail, surely it’s been fixed in place longer than the North Coast Rep.
Then it moves.
A turntable spins the middle half of the set around and loads in the Earlanger stage, where a despondent touring company is rehearsing Cyrano. Only the Pinocchio-nosed lead shows any interest. The rest slouch and mumble, as if on their last legs.
Moon takes place in one day, with enough pratfalls and faux pas for many a nightmare. Everything’s about to break up. Television is stealing audiences from small touring companies. George and Charlotte Hay’s troupe is near collapse in Buffalo. They can’t meet payroll, and the actors are disgruntled. Their marriage is no better. He’s been philandering; she’s on the verge.
George and Charlotte may be past their prime. He calls her “the world’s oldest ingénue,” and when he says he’s getting old, she replies, “No dear, you’re just falling apart.” To hear them talk, they could have been major stars, but never got that big break. George must have something, however. Frank Capra needs a lead actor to replace Ronald Coleman in The Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel (no such beast; that the great Frank Capra would stoop to such schlock shows how TV also threatens movies). In fact, Capra’s coming to Buffalo to watch George and Charlotte in a matinee. Capra’s coming! That’s the tipping — make that “tripping” — point for the shenanigans that follow.
Farces often bring in an outsider — in this case, George and Charlotte’s daughter Rosalind — for a sane view of the antics. But Rosalind’s only temporary. She swore off acting for a “normal” life in advertising (advertising, normal?). Plus she’s engaged to Howard, a TV weatherman (he “does precipitation”), and is apparently happy.
Then Rosalind runs into Paul. The stage manager trying to hold things together is her ex-fiance. Rosalind wanted to quit acting, but the vortex, to paraphrase Michael Corleone, pulls her back in. She whirls with the rest, including Richard, who has eyes for Charlotte; Eileen, who loved George and now is “two weeks late;” and Ethel, Charlotte’s near-deaf mother, who “hates every bone in George’s body.”
What follows, says Ethel, is “like living in an asylum on the guards’ day off.”
Another thing about backstage farces: no matter how melodramatic the acting on stage, behind the scenes, it’s doubled. To perform farce well, actors need to take Mania 1A so they can learn the requisite bull horn vocals and stretched-taffy gestures. Director Matthew Wiener’s a maestro of the craft. His cast is both spontaneous and precise. And they don’t sprint on a bare stage. The set has more than antique eye appeal. Chairs, stairs, and misplaced memorabilia become hazards when the race is on.
As George and Charlotte, Arthur Hanket and Katrina Ferguson relish histrionics, the one drunk, the other sober. In any other genre, they’d get a quick hook. Here, they excel. The rest of the cast provide strong support, especially Roxane Carrasco, who gets comic mileage out of mute Ethel, and newcomer Arusi Santi, as the weatherman turned General George S. Patton. Elisa Benzoni’s costumes shout 1953. And Jacque Wilke’s a wonder as perplexed Rosalind, especially when she’s on stage alone and must improvise, since George is late. Her hesitations, deer-in-headlights looks, and growing frustration are a wall-to-wall hoot.
On the Beatles’ Let It Be album, the song “Get Back“ is a live take from their rooftop concert. Paul says “Rosetta,” then John sings, “Sweet Rosetta Phat thought she was a cleaner…” Then Paul sings “Sweet Rosetta Ma…” and adds one more “Rosetta.”
They're paying subtle respect to Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973) the “godmother of rock n roll,” who influenced everyone from Little Richard to Elvis. To the horror of traditionalists, Tharpe combined gospel with urban and Mississippi Delta blues. She played electric guitar and injected a jolt of earthy spunk into church music.
George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta begins in a Mississippi funeral parlor in 1946. Tharpe has heard young Marie Knight perform, and wants them to become a duo. This is their first rehearsal. The overly talky, overly long play, which takes at least 40 minutes to warm up, is about freeing modest, stiff Knight from her formal roots.
As Rosetta, Noel Simone Wippler can belt with the best, but needs to vary her deliveries and plays only a passable guitar (Cygnet Theatre’s opening night had several glitches, the too-loud piano foremost). The ongoing highlight is Amaiya Holley’s Marie. She begins in a cultural straight-jacket. But you sense she can cut loose. When she finally does, with “Peace in the Valley,” she almost loosens the rafters at Cygnet Theatre.