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Seven Keys to Baldpate: Great Ensemble is the Key

The Acting Studio
Running Time: 2 hrs 10 min

JULY 28, 1997:  Bundled top to toe in overcoats, scarves, boots, gloves, and hats, the characters in George M. Cohan's melodramatic farce, Seven Keys to Baldpate, fend off the permeating cold as ineffectively as they orchestrate their multitudinous underhanded scams and schemes. Or so it would seem. In this entertaining, shaggy dog of a production by Different Stages, now playing at the Acting Studio, everyone is up to something and novelist William Magee has the fortune, and misfortune, of trying to piece together the clues to this increasingly twisted mystery.

Magee has placed a bet with a friend, a Manhattan socialite, to write a novel in 24 hours. The friend has supplied the venue -- a god-forsaken, tundra-cold outpost in the middle of upstate New York, the Baldpate Inn. Magee has one night to come up with his latest piece of (critically detested but wildly popular) melodramatic dreck. Under the assumption that his is the only key to the inn, Magee sets to work only to find himself caught in a swirl of small town corruption and dastardly politics, love, betrayal, and double-crosses, all in the foyer of this seemingly deserted inn.

The entire ensemble clearly has a grand time putting on this play -- their sense of fun bubbles just below the surface from start to finish. As novelist Magee, Robert Stevens provides indefatigable heroic charm: His Magee is a master of melodrama who relishes the challenge of the unfolding story. Meg Murphy, playing local newspaper cub-reporter-on-the-rise Mary Norton, delights as the instant love interest; Melanie Dean, as vixen-cum-blackmailer Myra Thornhill, tortures vowels and men's hearts with devious aplomb; and Paula Ruth Gilbert and Mike Groblewski create hearty bumpkins as caretaker of the inn and dutiful wife. Steven Fay's corrupt mayor and Phillip H. Robinson's snivelling pol dish out threats and pleas for their lives with equal smarminess; their right-hand men, played by Evan J. Kelley and Polo Silgucro, mirror their hardball playing, cowardly masters with a hapless, mafiosa-like sleaze; and Norman Blumensaadt's Hermit, damning all to hell and back, is a likeable nut.

Director Susan Dillard keeps the pace fast and the farce sharp for most of the play. The second act, once the story is out in the open, languishes for a while, but the play comes back strong with a sting in its tail. In this hottest of seasons, forget about the heat with a trudge up to the tundra for this Cohan classic. -- Robi Polgar

Guys & Dolls: Don't Rock the Boat

Zilker Hillside Theatre
through August 16
Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Criticizing an Austin institution is next to impossible. Too many people have too many memories wrapped up into going to 39 years' worth of Zilker Summer Musicals that the production itself has become irrelevant. It is the community's spirit that is the true measure of the production's success. In an era when theatre companies are disappearing in the blink of a eye, the mere fact that this concept has existed and thrived since 1958 is enough of a reason to praise it.

So I guess that makes me a bit of a heretic for kicking this sacred cow of the Austin musical theatre scene. Not to say that the show is bad -- it isn't -- it's just that some of the life has been sucked out of it, whether through the summer's heat or a grueling rehearsal process, and the result is a show that has lost some of its luster.

Part of the problem may lie with the difficulty of mounting the seemingly simple Guys and Dolls, set in a Runyon-esque New York City complete with cartoon gangsters, some scantily-clad women, and a few missionaries. The basic story revolves around a floating crap game and the need of Nathan Detroit, a mid-sized hood with a commitment phobia, to finance it. He places a bet with Sky Masterson, a big-time player, that Masterson can only really win by losing. But this isn't Scarface. These are shiny, happy gamblers portraying fun, family fare, perfect for building another year of memories.

While the story may be uncomplicated, the feats necessary to pull it off are not. This musical requires performers who are triple-threats, equally comfortable with acting, dancing, and singing, something that Austin has in short supply. The cast gives it their best shot, though Christopher Boyd's static direction and Timothy Harling's awkward choreography don't help the situation.

But there are enough bright spots to redeem this production. Dan Sullivan's Masterson is masterful. Sullivan knows how to play an audience as well as his character knows how to roll dice. Kara Bliss' portrayal of Detroit's ever-patient doll Adelaide is a joy to watch, due to the actor's confident voice and strong characterization. The traditional show-stoppers hold true in this production, like "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," also places where the cast feels comfortable enough to really let it rip.

Still, the show is not the most important part of this experience. But it would be wonderful if it could be. -- Adrienne Martini

Flame Failure 03: Declaration of Noise

The Public Domain
through July 27
Running Time: 40 min

Theatre is like a jumbo jet flying under this country's cultural radar. And some productions are like the stealth bomber, oblivious even to those who are looking for them. Flame Failure: The Silent War, an episodic industrial espionage thriller now playing late nights under The Public Domain, is one such aircraft.

It almost has to be. The idea is fairly unusual and highly ambitious for a young company that is producing one episode a month of this Dan Bonfitto play. It's a large scale project that almost screams cult hit, a joy only for those in the know, who are willing to commit one evening every month through next April to discover one more piece of this large puzzle about the characters and serpentine plot.

If the show maintains its stealth status, many theatre lovers who value creative problem solving and a love of the illusory essence of the craft will miss this adventure into a dark underworld that includes cultists, brain implants, and some good, old-fashioned kneecap-bashing. The story of the play revolves around a book, a very special book which is wanted by at least three separate agencies who operate and have thus far searched in silence. For those of you who have not had this production emerge on your radar screen, a brief recap is in order.

In episode one, Drake, a double, perhaps triple agent, and Wormwood, a freelancer for a rival syndicate, are trapped in a boiler with the ever-present threat that the gas will ignite and toast them. Drake, as luck would have it, was the last one with the book. He discloses its location, a used book store, to Wormwood. Wormwood "escapes," a foregone conclusion since it was his companions who set up the situation in the first place. The pilot ignites and Drake is burned.

The second episode revolves around Wagner's Bookstore, a shop run by a cultist with an antenna in her shoulder. Three separate factions have converged upon the shop -- Wormwood and Caio, Agent 13 and Tail, who work for a different syndicate, and the rogue Doc Recon. Ultimately, Doc Recon finds the book, Agent 13 is captured by the cultists, and we learn that Drake is still alive but somehow changed.

This episode, the third installment, adds several small bits of information to this ever-increasing pool. Pieces are starting to come together, largely through fine performances by Lenore Perry as jacked-in security guard Leo, Zach Murphy as Crow, the accountant who never learned the finer points of inducing blunt trauma, and Anne Engelking as Salvadore, a woman whose best friend is a ball-peen hammer. While the show is not perfect (there are some ragged text edges and unclear performances) the technical team's attention to detail, coupled with the cast's enthusiasm, make it an intellectual hoot to experience. Granted, the plot may seem a mite confusing, an understatement on par with "The Sahara is dry." But it is no more labyrinthine than your average episode of the X-Files. The answers really are out there. You just need to be paying attention. -- Adrienne Martini

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