Reviewed by Judy Richter
Hooray for Hollywood, and hooray for American Conservatory Theater's smart new production of an old chestnut, "Once in a Lifetime." Under the direction of associate artistic director Mark Rucker, this 1930 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comes to vivid life despite the somewhat dated material.
Written as vaudeville and silent films were fast giving way to the talkies, "Once in a Lifetime" satirizes all the dreams as well as the excesses of greed and power that gripped Tinseltown in those heady days. The central characters are the members of a three-person vaudeville act that's going nowhere. Julia Coffey as May Daniels, Patrick Lane as George Lewis and John Wernke as Jerry Hyland open the show with their singing and dancing as George plays the ukelele. With their finances dwindling, they come up with a scheme: They realize that as the talkies take over, silent film actors and actresses will need elocution lessons.
They board a train toward California with the intention of setting up an elocution school. As luck would have it, Helen Hobart (René Augesen), one of the entertainment world's most influential (and egotistical) columnists is on the same train, talks with them and agrees to become a partner in their enterprise.
Once in Hollywood, they manage to set up their school in a studio run by Weisskopf (Jason Frank). Along the way, they meet a number of oddball characters as various complications arise. One of the people they meet is aspiring actress Susan Walker (Ashley Wickett), to whom George is attracted. They make a good couple because both are nice people but not very bright.
Rucker's production features scenes from vintage films such as "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson, considered the first talkie hit. Also featured are scenes with a very young Bing Crosby as well as a Busby Berkeley production number and a new scene made to look old by video designer Alexander V. Nichols. The production also features terrific performances by 15 actors, who all play at least one other character, some more than that. Among those already named, Augesen nearly steals the show with her outlandish Helen, while Lane is so good at playing dense as George. Some other noteworthy turns come from Nick Gabriel in drag as Miss Leighton, the studio's officious receptionist, and Alexander Crowther as Lawrence Vail, a playwright who was hired by the studio but who is frustrated by being totally ignored.
The terrific sets are by Daniel Ostling, while Alex Jaeger designed the right-on period costumes.The sound is by Cliff Caruthers.
Although it might be easy to go over the top with some of the characters, Rucker wisely keeps them in check, allowing them to be funny, even hilarious, without overdoing. Thus ACT opens its season with an unqualified hit, a true delight for its audiences.