Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Bugs and Cats of ‘Shinbone Alley’ Make a Gem in Sturgeon Bay

Critic At Large WeAreGreenBay
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Takeaway No. 1 from “Shinbone Alley” is the imagination is a wonderful thing.

The story of the musical imagines a cockroach writing a story by hopping around on the keys of a manual typewriter in a newspaper office.

The cockroach, Archy, tells of an alley cat, Mehitabel, whose worldliness gets the best of her and yet is of her. In other words, she is what she is… and we are what we are.

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Photo caption: Archy (Brade Bradshaw) listens contentedly, Mehitabel the cat (Samantha Sostarich) sings of life as she wishes to live it in a scene from the Third Avenue Playhouse production of “Shinbone Alley.” (Heidi Hodges photo)

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Takeaway No. 2 from the professional Third Avenue Playhouse’s production of “Shinbone Alley” is Samantha Sostarich is made for the role of Mehitabel. The full voice, the illuminating expression and the carriage and flair of a tattered glamour cat are all there.

Envision the audition. There isn’t much for Sostarich to draw on – to copycat, so to speak. “Shinbone Alley” had a brief run on Broadway in 1957. It surfaced since then in various forms, but not so much as a musical the likes of what director James Valcq and Third Avenue Playhouse have put together. So Sostarich, it seems, has made Mehitabel her own.

In a way, her Mehitabel is why Archy is so enamored of her, even if he is a cockroach.

In the story, Archy will do anything for Mehitabel. He gets her out of jail. He advises her (that she should take the job as a housecat that’s in the want ads). He recognizes her role in life is the same as his (that they are flotsam and jetsam, which is one of the songs).

Reading this, you can probably tell why few theaters spring to produce “Shinbone Alley,” with its cast of bugs and cats. And then there is the game Third Avenue Playhouse, which has a knack for making chamber theater gems. This is another.

This and that:

+ The backdrop suggests a big-city alley. The back wall is dark, with suggestions of metallic ladders on walls, windows, a long downspout and a staircase with a door. This is Shinbone Alley, which is meant to feel sketchy.

+ Music is live, played with varietal zest and color on piano by music director Jamie Schmidt.

+ Brade Bradshaw plays the soulful Archy. The soul of the character is that of a poet. Archy discusses transmigration. This cockroach had a previous mission. Bradshaw taps into the nooks and crannies of the character who knows much but has so much just out of reach. Like a cockroach, Bradshaw adds some gymnastics to his role.

+ A showcase number for Archy/Bradshaw and Mehitabel/Sostarich is “Flotsam and Jetsam,” a masterful piece of rhythm and patter in lyrics and dance. The characters laugh off their state in life and are so caught up in the jollies that their song/dance continues into two quick and infectious encores.

+ Bill Theisen grabs attention as two tomcats that Mehitabel can’t resist (apparently not that they are that much different than all the other toms in her life). Theisen makes Big Bill dangerous (for Archy). Theisen, as the suave Tyrone T. Tattersall, then pours on the heat with Mehitabel/Sostarich in a remarkable interpretation of cat carnal attraction. The song “Come to Mee-ow” contains virtually end to end inflections of feline allure using the human voice. Imagine more than a wink in a nod in the purr-fect come-on line, “Come to meeeee neeeee-ow.”

+ Jennifer Harlee Mitchell, Carmen Risi and Kati Schwaber are around as kind of a Greek chorus. Most times, they are alley cats. Once, they are ladybugs (in “love”). Once, they make up a trio of cooing women who adore kittens (that are a drag on the free-wheeling Mehitabel’s life style). Also, there is a scene in which one plays a moth drawn to a flame. One of the cool things about Jennifer Harlee Mitchell, Carmen Risi and Kati Schwaber is they ring harmonically in voice. It’s a bonus effect.

+ The cat, lady bug and moth characters are suggested by costuming, which is quite good. Theisen’s costume is two-sided, one for each of the toms he portrays. As Archy, Bradshaw wears a suit and a bowler that mildly suggest smooth surfaces of a cockroach but, fortunately, he isn’t outfitted with six legs and two antennae. That would have been too much.

+ While mostly playful, the show waxes thoughtful when Archy’s “writings” run to politics, ethics and philosophy.

+ One of the creators of the original show is Mel Brooks, who co-wrote the book. Is Brooks recognizable here from the output he has become famous for? That’s hard to say. Maybe in the earthy tone in the cats and lady bugs.

+ The show may be from 1957, but it doesn’t feel dated except that typewriters are a thing of the past. Basically, what was imaginative in 1957 – and probably way out there in that conservative era – is imaginative in 2018.

Side note: “Shinbone Alley” starts with the line, “Have you ever seen an empty newspaper office at night?” I immediately thought, “I’m going to like this show.” In my career at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, many a time I was the last person out of the third-floor newsroom. I saw an empty newspaper office at night. I had come in after taking in a play or a concert – even heavy-duty rock concerts – to write a review (on a typewriter for many years). An empty newspaper office at night is conducive to writing. There were no cockroaches at the Press-Gazette, though. Or, not that I saw before turning off the lights.

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Creative: Based on the stories of Don Marquis: book – Mel Brooks, Joe Darion; music – George Kleinsinger; lyrics – Joe Darion; director – James Valcq; music director/pianist – Jamie Schmidt; costume design – Kelsey Wang; production manager/sound design – Alex Genty-Waksberg; master carpenter – Ed DiMaio; set and lighting design – James Valcq

Cast (in order of appearance): The Newspaperman (voice) – Bill Theisen; Archy – Brade Bradshaw; Phyllis – Jennifer Harlee Mitchell; Gladys – Kati Schwaber; Lillian – Carmen Risi; Mehitabel – Samantha Sostarich; Big Bill – Bill Theisen; Tyrone T. Tattersall – Bill Theisen; Tomcats and Ladybugs – Jennifer Harlee Mitchell, Carmen Risi, Kati Schwaber

Running time: One hour, 35 minutes

Remaining performances: To Sept. 2 – 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Info: thirdavenueplayhouse.com.

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Songs

Act I

“What Do We Care?” – Mahitabel, Ensemble

“Toujours Gai?” – Mahitabel

“Queer Little Insect” – Mahitabel

“Queer Little Insect” (Reprise) – Archy

“Big Bill” – Big Bill, Ensemble

“True Romance” – Mahitabel, Big Bill

“The Lightning Bug Song” – Archy

“I Gotta Be” – Archy

“Flotsam and Jetsam” – Archy and Mahitabel

“Come to Mee-ow” – Tyrone T. Tattersal

“Suicide Song” – Archy

“Shinbone Alley” – Big Bill and denizens of Shinbone Alley

Act II

“The Moth Song” – Archy

“A Woman Wouldn’t Be a Woman” – Mahitabel, Ensemble

“The Lullaby” – Mahitabel and Singing Alleycats

“Pretty Kitty” – Singing Alleycats and Mahitabel

“The Lady Bug Song” – Lady Bugs

“Be a Pussycat” – Mahitabel

“Flotsam and Jetsam” (Reprise) – Mahitabel, Ensemble

“Toujours Gai” (Reprise” – Company

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NEXT: “Billy Bishop Goes to War” by John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with Eric Peterson, Sept. 13-Oct. 21.

THE VENUE: The 84-seat Studio Theatre is located in Third Avenue Playhouse in downtown Sturgeon Bay. The space is tucked into the corner off the main theater of the playhouse. Entry is along a long hallway off the playhouse’s lobby. Studio Theatre is a black-box theater; the walls and support beams are black. The focus becomes the stage, which is rectangular and has no curtain. With the closeness of the audience to the stage, the aura is the audience is part of what is transpiring in the play. The playhouse previously was a movie theater, the Donna.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.

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