'Roberta' revives a Kern-ucopia

Musical Theatre Guild revisits the 1933 show, whose Jerome Kern score still wears very well indeed.

By Rob Kendt, Special to The Times

February 24, 2005

What fun the taffeta-light confection "Roberta" proves to be, in Musical Theatre Guild's modest but smoothly played new staged concert reading. This 1933 artifact is mainly known for the Jerome Kern standards it introduced — "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Yesterdays" (though another, "Lovely to Look At," was written for the Astaire/Rogers film version of 1935) — and as a footnote in Bob Hope's career (it was his first Broadway book show after years in vaudeville).

It's no mystery why Otto Harbach's serviceably silly book isn't as well remembered. It boasts a perfectly absurd plot about a naïve American football hero, John (Roger Befeler), who co-inherits a Parisian couture house with a pretty young designer (Kim Huber) whose intermittent accent and stern associate Ladislaw (Stan Chandler) are clues to her true identity (A hint: The sequel to "Roberta" might be called "A Tsar Is Born").

For a musical set largely in Paris, Frenchmen are alarmingly scarce on the ground. There are Americans: John, his expat couturier aunt (Susan Watson), his wisecracking pal Huck (Eric Leviton) and their traveling band of fraternity musicians, and John's petty fiancée (Jenny Gordon) and her haughty mom (Kathryn Skatula). There's an ostensible Brit, the avuncular Lord Henry (Jimmy Gleason, having a marvelous time and not even attempting an accent).

And there are Russians: the aforementioned Ladislaw, who stalks about solemnly in long red tails, and Madame Scharwenka (Karen Culliver), a hot-to-trot chanteuse who never wears the same outfit twice, and sometimes barely even once.

Culliver makes a full meal out of Scharwenka's swishy excesses and dopey malapropisms ("I'm sorry I lost my impatience," "I don't want a shootgun wedding"). She's the show's strongest character, in fact, and she reaches her apotheosis in a memorable tantrum over an ill-conceived dress that redefines "wardrobe malfunction."

Huck is the show's other comic weapon; it's the role Bob Hope played onstage and Astaire played in the film. The portly Leviton puts a Jason Alexander-ish spin on Huck's one-liners and renders his songs affably conversational. He's also a dry foil for Befeler's tall, thick-headed leading man. The svelte, smiling Huber makes a nice fairy-tale match for Befeler: Both look great, sing lusciously and have zero sense of humor.

The reason any of this is worth revisiting at all is the unspeakably sophisticated score by Kern, that one-man bridge between Vienna and Tin Pan Alley. The onstage band, led by music director Steven Applegate, plays it all like a dream café orchestra.

Director Lewis Wilkenfeld is remarkably astute managing the comic business and bustle with these (mostly) on-book performers. And speaking of bustle, costumer Shon LeBlanc delivers the show's only production-value must: a lavish fashion show of to-die-for dresses.

Jerome Kern's paradoxical brilliance lay in his finely studied unpretentiousness, and this "Roberta" honors his urbane aesthetic with loosely worn ease and charm.



Where: Musical Theatre Guild at Scheer Forum at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza's Countrywide Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks

When: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $38

Contact: (805) 583-8700 or

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes


Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. March 7

Ends: March 7

Price: $25

Contact: (562) 856-1999