In “Moon Over Buffalo,” playwright Ken Ludwig makes teasing reference to husband-and-wife actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
It’s 1953, and a B-grade actor says to his wife that the two couples are the only duos still hopscotching around the country, what with theater being a “dying invalid.” The actor refers to the combined Lunt-Fontanne age as 1,000.
In 1953, the combined age of the real Lunt and Fontanne was 127 – 61 for him, 66 for her. Television had come along, and traveling theater had indeed become an invalid.
Note: Lunt and Fontanne were – are – Wisconsin’s most famous acting couple. They are legend in theater. A theater on Broadway is named for them. A U.S. postage stamp honored them. They inspired plays and musicals. Their unique off-the-beaten-track Wisconsin home-away-from-theater, Ten Chimneys, still exists and is active. It is worth a visit sometime.
In a sense, Lunt and Fontanne helped spark the fun of “Moon Over Buffalo,” which has two productions going in our region this month. A University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre production runs Feb. 21-24 in Fredric March Theatre on campus. Already opened and continuing to Feb. 23 is a Sheboygan Theatre Company production that I saw Sunday afternoon.
The Sheboygan Theatre Company production is plenty lively. The play has a lot of scampering confusion in it, and the setup in Leslie W. Johnson Theatre adds to the off-to-the-races mayhem. The basic performance area is wide and on two levels, so the hither-and-yon running by desperate characters has the actors hoofing some big distances – an added amusement.
Directed by Shari Roehl, cast members throw themselves into the mixed-up frenzy of the story.
Ken Ludwig has concocted a fine mess. The duo of George and Charlotte Hay (Randy Stache and Nanette Bolebosh) leads a troupe that is traveling the boondocks putting on the repertory combination of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Private Lives” (by Noel Coward, a buddy of Lunt and Fontanne and visitor to Ten Chimneys).
The Hays’s company is unraveling, plus their daughter Roz (Barbara Alvarez) has opted out acting and a relationship with the stage manager Paul (Jeremy Lee) for a “normal” life and marriage to nerdy meteorologist Howard (Tim Muldoon).
Ludwig tosses in other complicating characters: The Hays’s deaf/world-wise mother/mother-in-law/grandmother Ethel (Sandi James); Richard (Scott Rickert), who has the hots for Charlotte; and Eileen (Danielle Rammer, who was subbed for with spirit Sunday by Berta Meyer), who George had such hots for that Eileen is pregnant.
As part of that last part, George’s head is on the chopping block with Charlotte, and he is so miserable he gets drunk to the gills before the matinee. Complication: Famed film director Frank Capra is reported to be on his way to catch the matinee to see George in action to then hire him for a role in a major motion picture.
Gags abound – word gags, clothing gags, sight gags and situation gags. The show is quite the smorgasbord of frenetic.
The catalyst is the iconoclastic George, who veers through life. Stache is steady-as-he-goes as the unsteady George. Bulebosh helps generate the feel of a stage veteran at work. Alvarez and Muldoon are new to performing, though you wouldn’t guess it from their confident energy.
The actors wear wireless headsets to aid the hearing for the audience, though the amplification system has a hollowness in sound.
The staging is interesting – as usual for Sheboygan Theatre Company, with the unique amphitheater space in Horace Mann Middle School. Some scenes take place on an aisle in the mid-level arc of the amphitheater. The effect is as if the players are seen on the stage of the play’s theater. Most scenes take place in the half-circle performance space of the amphitheater. The floor has been specially painted. All around are behind-the-scenes stuff of a theater. In the proscenium area in the rear are three doors for scurrying into and out of for the farce frenzy.
It’s all quite silly and nonsensical, of course. And good for laughs and general fun.
Creative: Playwright – Ken Ludwig; director – Shari Roehl; production stage manager – Mitch Birkey; set designer – Nan Gibson; costume designers – Beth Wynveen, Jamie Wynveen; lighting designer – Lisa Stewart; properties designer – Alexandria Blindauer, Jackie Blindauer; hair/make-up designer – Michelle Bestul; theater manager – Jackie Erdman
George Hay – Randy Stache
Charlotte Hay – Nanette Bulebosh
Roz Hay – Barbara Alvarez
Paul – Jeremy Lee
Ethel – Sandi James
Howard – Tim Muldoon
Richard – Scott Rickert
Eileen – Danielle Rammer (Berta Meyer, Feb. 17)
Running time: One hour, 55 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 20, 21, 22, 23
NEXT: “The Wizard of Oz,” May 10-18.
The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theatre in Horace Mann Middle School is a one-of-a-kind theater space for Northeastern Wisconsin. Its layout creates special demands that can lead to rewards in unique theatergoing. The spacious facility is in the shape of an amphitheater with steep stairways. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The front row of seats is on the performance level, which is a half circle. A proscenium (flat front) stage area extends across the rear line of the half circle. The school was built in 1970. The aura of the lobby and theater combined is that of a community gathering place.
THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a
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