Review: Fashion, the High-Style Musical by Sam Bass Community Theatre
by Michael Meigs
Director Frank Benge and the cast of Fashion at the Sam Bass Community Theatre played a happy triple bluff May 29 to June 12. The base text of this staging is Anna Cora Mowatt's play Fashion, or New York Society. First performed in 1845, it did not rise above the standards of the day. It's a boilerplate melodrama complete with a conniving con-man passing himself off as foreign nobility and with an ingénue playing the orphaned serving girl who's really of distinguished parentage. In this drawing room comedy we encounter an affluent city couple Mr. and Mrs. Tiffany, their social circle which includes a gruff retired colonel, and their French maid Milinette.
Playwright Anna Cora Mowatt would be worthy of a biographic drama, all to herself. The ninth child of a prosperous New York merchant of Bordeaux wines, she grew up in France. Not long after the family's return to New York, she eloped at the age of 15. Mowatt undertook to present public dramatic readings, one of which was favorably commented upon by Edgar Allen Poe. Her play Fashion is reportedly the first play by an American woman to receive public performance. To top that, Mowatt herself went on stage in 1845, enjoying a relatively short but successful career in New York and London as the only American actress to have come out of genteel American society. This rich background is not explored in the program or press material.
In 1974 composer Don Pippin and lyricist Steve Brown thought it would be fun to set this white elephant to music. They fashioned a sprightly score with a music hall bounce and an attractive ballad or two. Because they had trouble recruiting male talent, they changed the premise -- theirs was to be a play-within-a-play, in which the all-female Long Island Masque and Wig Society was reviving the period piece under the direction of the sole male in the cast. Wicked trickster "Count Joliamatre" was Richard, a director who had given very intimate tutelage to each of the women in the cast. Our evening's entertainment is the Society's first run-through.
Director Frank Benge happened to see the original production, in which Off-Broadway was spoofing amateur theatre reviving early American drama. This production took that one step further: the Sam Bass, as a community theatre, interpreted Off Broadway spoofing amateur theatre reviving early American drama. One might recall one of those halls of repeating mirrors, in which the original image is repeated toward infilnity, except that the plot elements dealing with the Long Island Masque and Wig Society are cursory. They appear as explanations in the press release and program, momentarily in the opening scene, and then in a rush in the blackout at the end as that crowd of females goes after their director dandy.
The music is lively and entertaining but doesn't impress itself firmly upon one's memory. Musical numbers occur at regular intervals as decoration but they're only lightly attached to the action.
Ensemble numbers are energetic and cleverly choreographed -- one particular pleasure is the duet "It Was For Fashion's Sake" by Peggy Schott and Linda Myers as Mr. and Mrs. Tiffany, in which Peggy clatters into a smart buck-and-wing.
The fun of Fashion arises directly from a quality that just might be the trademark of this small but active and effective theatre company. The Sam Bass likes to put the "play" into plays and the "community" into community theatre. They love to amuse by running a kaleidoscope of friendly talent for a loyal following. Several of these faces are familiar -- Gene Storie as the director/seducer, Roni Prior as the vice-ridden clerk, and Ashlyn Nichols as the young lady, for example -- and the others are just as attractive and confident. The company's evident enjoyment of making theatre makes one look forward to seeing them again onstage at the former Union Pacific depot in Round Rock.
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Round Rock, TX, 78664