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THEATER REVIEW

An invitation to the dance

South Coast Repertory's 'Ballyhoo' is an engaging take on the oft-produced comedy about assimilated Jews.

September 08, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

South Coast Repertory produces new plays and classics -- but not much that's in between.

Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is an in-between play. First produced in 1996, it's too young to be a classic. But it's too frequently produced to be considered new. Los Angeles County has seen at least four professional productions of it in the last five years, and even in South Coast's own Orange County, a community theater staged it as early as 2000.

So it's uncharacteristic of South Coast to choose Uhry's play as the opener of the company's 40th season. It's a tribute to this wistful comedy that South Coast would provide such a prominent slot for it.

Warner Shook's staging of "Ballyhoo" justifies its place of honor. There aren't any striking revelations in this production for those who have seen previous versions. But the play is especially fluid and involving here, and the designers provide South Coast's usual lavish trappings.

"Ballyhoo" is set in 1939. Three events converge on Atlanta: the premiere of the movie version of "Gone With the Wind," the titular Ballyhoo -- an annual social bash for young, marriageable Jews from throughout the South -- and Christmas, which these heavily assimilated, German-descended Jews observe as a secular holiday.

In the Freitag house, 22-year-old Lala is obsessed with the glamour of the "Gone With the Wind" opening. But her widowed mother, Boo, is wound up over Ballyhoo and the suspense of whether an eligible man will ask Lala to the culminating dance.

They live with Boo's brother Adolph, who runs the successful family bedding company. Adolph is quietly aware that something of much greater significance than Ballyhoo is happening to the Jews in his family's ancestral homeland.

Also living with them is Adolph and Boo's widowed sister-in-law, Reba, whose daughter Sunny is returning from Wellesley for the winter break. The professor of one of Sunny's courses has been teaching her that all religions are basically the same.

Joe, a new employee at Adolph's company, has reason to disagree with that sunny assessment. A Brooklyn boy, his people are more recently arrived Eastern European Jews, whom the Ballyhoo set regards as "the other kind." This intra-Jewish division is a microcosm of the treatment of Jews in general by the larger society.

Joe spurns Lala's interest in him as a possible Ballyhoo date in favor of Sunny, but he ends up having problems with Sunny as well. Oddly, he has no problems with his boss, Adolph, even though Adolph is a past president of the exclusive club that sponsors Ballyhoo. Uhry's writing of Adolph is too rosy, but that flaw is hard to notice in this production, so genial and inviting is Richard Doyle's Adolph.

The performance to remember, however, is Kandis Chappell as Boo, an abrasive but often hilarious knot of self-pride and self-loathing. She's bitter not only about her status as a Jew but also about her position as a strong woman whose life has been reduced to trivia.

Nathan Baesel's Joe looks too juvenile at first. But his voice is commanding enough to buttress his moral stance, as he begins to point out the extent of naivete in these Atlanta Jews, some of whom can't even define "klutz" or "Passover."

Debra Funkhouser's sensible Sunny and Blair Sams' desperate Lala, whose frizzy hair provides an amusing contrast to her Scarlett-inspired hoop skirt on the last night of Ballyhoo, are opposites without overdoing it.

Linda Gehringer handles Reba's lines, which occasionally are too self-consciously ditzy, with proper restraint. The same can be said for Guilford Adams as Lala's live-wire but socially conventional gentleman caller.

Shook stages the Ballyhoo scene in the aisles and the front of the audience area, which helps detach it from Michael Olich's richly detailed Freitag house.

Some productions have failed to clarify whether the play's coda is real or simply Sunny's fantasy. Shook clearly chooses the latter, isolating the scene in a pool of light and making Sunny cross the stage to reach it.

It's more poignant and credible that way, considering that we know that World War II is about to crash into these people's lives.

*

`The Last Night of Ballyhoo'

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.

Ends: Oct. 5

Price: $27-$55

Contact: (714) 708-5555

Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Kandis Chappell...Boo

Blair Sams...Lala

Debra Funkhouser...Sunny

Nathan Baesel...Joe

Richard Doyle...Adolph

Linda Gehringer...Reba

Guilford Adams...Peachy

By Alfred Uhry. Directed by Warner Shook. Sets by Michael Olich. Costumes by Frances Kenny. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Composer/sound by Michael Roth. Stage manager Scott Harrison.

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