The process of developing new musical theatre pieces is costly and seldom possible outside major centers where such work is regularly produced. Even shows tried out out-of-town--that is, outside New York in most cases--usually hire performers from the Big Apple. Perhaps the Boston area has joined this exclusive club with an unlikely little show which just has its world premiere at the up-and-coming Stoneham Theatre just off an Interstate 20 minutes from downtown. The cast and staff for Jeremy Desmon's farcical fantasy "The Girl in the Frame" is entirely local; the result up to the standard set by other solid musical theatre presenters around town. This musical comedy, which takes an decidedly offbeat look at the beginnings of the marriage of two twenty-somethings after a four year engagement, has gotten first class treatment and was extended a week before it opened.
Stoneham's Artistic Director, Weylin Symes, who shepherded last year's successful Emerging Stages project, Erba's "Marathon", has proved equally adept at generating a fast-paced musical production from equally challenging material. He's greatly aided by music director Timothy Evans who's found various ways to make the competent score easy to listen to as it evolves. The multitalented cast handles Desmon's clever lyrics and smart script with aplomb. Christopher Chew , Stoneham's Education Director, appeared as George in the award-winning "Sunday in the Park..." two seasons ago at the Lyric, then played Marc Blitzstein in "It's All True" and a lead in "Side Show" last season. Chew did "Pete n' Keeley" for Stoneham earlier this fall. And he's obviously enjoying a bit of self-parody in this outing as Tomas, every woman's idol. Josef Hansen, who plays Alex, has done "The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare" four times for Shakespeare & Co. among his other parts for them, played Seymour in Stoneham's revival of "Little Shop..." as well as the Barber in "La Mancha" and was in Ronan Noone's award-winning "Lepers of Baile Baiste" for Sugan. This part draws on the whole range of his experience.
As the title character, Evelyn, a girl whose picture came with the frame, Julie Jirousek demonstrates yet another side of her talents, which have ranged recently from Lady MacDuff on the Boston Common, and Annie Sullivan at the Lyric to Clara in "Passion" for Speakeasy and Vi in "Footloose" for Ogunquit. She dominates the first act as both the real character's "eidelon" or ideal, As Laney, petite Ceit McCalb, currently in charge of dance and choreography for the Lincoln school system, takes on Evelyn's challenge however, with Hansen's perplexed Alex caught in the middle. After all, both Alex and Laney bought the same frame with the same picture as a surprise present for the other on the anniversary of their engagement. But when Laney calls up Chew's larger than life Tomas at the end of the first act, things become truly preposterous in the next.
The twists and turns of Desmon's script, which is still fluid, make it a true farce. Most of his songs obey the current dictum that characters sing when the action demands, but in this show, we don't always see that coming. He and Symes have solved a number of the problems presented by unexpected changes of direction, which do keep the audience wondering what's next, and often pleasantly surprised when they find out. Jenna McFarland's set for the show, an abstracted apartment living room with four doors, serves for most of the scenes, with a few insets--like the restaurant where the action starts cleverly worked out--if not always so easily changed. Izzy Einsidler's lighting supports the action as well, though more practicals like those in the first scene would help elsewhere as well. The orchestration, now servicable, could develop into something special. There are extended almost sung-through sections as well as a few almost traditional numbers, like the comic duet, "What Can You Do?" between Evelyn and Tomas which serves as the eleven o'clock number. And as a true farce, both couples end up together, Alex and Laney in slightly confused wedded bliss, and their two imaginary counterparts, off for a fantasy holiday at a secret resort.
It's hard how this show will finally turn out. Laney's crush on Evelyn, who she calls "Casey" is hardly fleshed out. Alex's encounter with Sarah, the woman who modeled for the original picture, which leads into the climax, needs more refinement. A stronger relationship/rivalry between the two fantasy figures would tease their going off together. And Tomas could easily show up as a waiter in the opening scene. But what's currently onstage at the Stoneham Theatre is a small triumph of ensemble, hard work, and quite a bit of talent. It will be interesting to see this show the next time it comes around; regional theatre needs a good four person musical comedy.
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