"Stage Door" still dazzles after seven decades
When you decide to do a 76-year-old play and present it to an audience today, it's probably a good idea to have a couple of pieces of magic up your sleeve.
First of all, it should certainly be a good play with some kind of issue that will resonate with a 21st-century audience. You also need a director and actors who commit to going back in time. And lastly, you need costumes that don't look like something you might wear to a "throwback days" party.
It's always a gamble, but the risk can sometimes be worth it.
That's what has happened at Sunset Playhouse, where they debuted a long run of "Stage Door," a 76-year-old play written by Edna Ferber and George S.Kaufman.
Both Ferber and Kaufman were members of the famed Algonquin round table in New York in the 1930s, and they brought incredible individual talents and experiences to the play. They lived the Broadway theater life on a daily basis, and they wanted to write a play about the dreams that fuel the world of big-time theater.
What they came up with was a play about a house full of female dreamers who spent their days trying to keep their hopes alive and their nights wondering if they should pack it in and go home. It's also about the threat to truth and beauty by commercialism and lust for a dollar.
Filling this stage like a roiling wave of whispering smoke is Hollywood, the evil seducer of young girls with hope and talent. Standing tall against this seduction is the world of live theater, where there are no second takes, where you sink or swim on the wings of what you do in the moment.
The production at Sunset, which sets the gold standard for community theater in Milwaukee, has some highs and a few scattered lows.
The most striking thing about this play is how it looks. From a great design of the sitting room in the boarding house to costumes that shout with authenticity, the look of this play is a feast for the eye and the memory. Not many of us were around 76 years ago, but we've all see pictures. And this play is a perfect match for those pictures. Scenic designer Steve Langenecker and costume coordinator Joanne Cunningham nailed the time period.
There is a lot of humor in this production, but underneath the laughs is a rather sinister battle between good and evil, between staying true to your values or selling out for a cheap thrill and, as the heroine Terry Randall says, "little ermine jackets."
As Terry, who carries this play on her shoulders, Shannon Tyburski is a lovely ingénue playing a lovely ingénue. If her actions don't always match the wide swath of her words, we tend to forgive her because she is the embodiment of the hopes each of us has had in life.
The sellout in this crowd is Keith Burgess, a solemn, driven, starving, demanding, fanatical playwright who eschews such mundane things as an audience, money and fame. He is also Terry's boyfriend, until he sells out to Hollywood and loses his values and his girlfriend.
One problem with this production is that while we need passion and force from Burgess, what we get from actor Ryan Johnson is a character who reminds us of the cute boy next door. He doesn't bring enough to make us believe the fierceness of his words. It's like asking Roseanne Barr to play Evita. The glove doesn't fit.
There are 28 people in this cast, so the main job facing director Tommy Lueck is to be a traffic cop and keep people moving and prevent them from knocking each other out. The cast showed discipline and the ability to create a wide variety of characters who had different stories but shared one big goal.
"Stage Door" is a chance to bask in the way things used to be, and to realize that now, seven decades later, some of the issues that burned so brightly then are still waving over our heads. It's well worth taking this trip back in time.
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