Always on the lookout for something different, the Shaw Festival has revived a fairly obscure Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash musical from the 40s for this summer’s season. A cast of 21(!) fills the cozy Royal George Theatre with their exuberance. Venus runs, in repertory, through October 10th. The show clocks in about 2 ½ hours, with a single intermission.
Wartime NYC. Megabucks art collector/autocrat Whitelaw Savory has just discovered and imported a fabulous Venus statue for his Art Institute. Joe Schmoe barber Rodney Hatch unwittingly brings the statue to life, only to find the unchained goddess doggedly and romantically grateful. Joe is steadfastly engaged, however, to the far-less-than-heavenly Gloria. Savory is also smitten with Venus, and his long-suffering secretary Molly continues to carry the torch for him. Typical romantic fluff, but spiced with sexual repartee, and also boasting some pithy satire of suburbia and the New Art.
Lithe and bubbly Robin Evan Willis makes a fetching if slightly juvenile Venus. Think of her as a Goddess-in-Training. As Rodney, Kyle Blair is the perfect Earnest Male Ingénue; he has real comic gifts, and a nice strong tenor. Blair and Willis duet beautifully in the show’s one real hit song, “Speak Low”. Mark Uhre plays Savory with the proper mixture of suavity and bluster, but the character never quite crystallizes. His fine, big baritone is employed to great effect in the beautiful “West Wind”. Deborah Hay is right on-the-money as the wisecracking Molly, playing what old film buffs will instantly recognize as the Eve Arden role. Julie Martell’s Gloria is a one-trick pony; her incessant screeching is funny at first, but soon grows tiresome. Anthony Malarky’s fiery Turk, Zuvetli, is a much funnier, indeed admirable caricature. Shaw stalwarts Jay Turvey and Neil Barclay get a great chance to shine in the adorable, barbershop-style “The Trouble With Women”.
Director Eda Holmes gets a great deal of energy and enthusiasm from her big cast. There are nifty, sometimes flat-out witty period costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco. Camellia Koo’s NYC set, using aerial photographs and tubular metal skyscraper-suggesting elements, is clever but seems a little cramped on the small Royal George stage. Better I liked the cheeky, oversized man-and-woman wire sculptures. Kudos to Michael Lichtefeld for his work on the show’s two satiric mini-ballets: “Forty Minutes For Lunch” and “Venus in Ozone Heights”; the latter is a particular gem. Ryan deSouza’s twelve piece ensemble is bright and polished, but it does drown out more than a few of Ogden Nash’s Porteresque rhymes.
Amiable but uneven, One Touch of Venus is no masterpiece by any means. Still, it has some wonderful musical moments, a plethora of salacious quips, and a satisfying dollop of smart social commentary. You’re a pretty hard case if you don’t melt at the ending. Lovers of old musicals would be foolish to miss this loving, ultra-rare revival. Warts and all, it gets…
RATING: FOUR BUFFALOS (out of five).
Image Courtesy of The Shaw Festival