February 11, 2004





Charms are a-changing


'Little Mary Sunshine's" parodic targets are largely forgotten, so the Musical Theatre Guild accentuates other positives in its revival.


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


The name Rudolf Friml mean anything to you? How about Sigmund Romberg? Surely you've heard of Victor Herbert?


If you're drawing a blank, you're unlikely to enjoy, let alone understand, "Little Mary Sunshine," Rick Besoyan's loving parody of the chaste, warbly operettas with scores by the above composers, made popular in films with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, among others. "Sunshine" is now in a decent, doting staged-concert revival by Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and plays next in Thousand Oaks.


The 1959 off-Broadway audience that made "Little Mary Sunshine" a minor hit probably had fresh memories of such classic 1930s films as "Rose Marie" and "Maytime," and they must have laughed knowingly through its good-natured battery of cliches. But 45 years on, the distance from the original targets is so great that Besoyan's kid-gloved spoof has mostly blurred into straight-up homage.


 Now, witnessing the virginal Little Mary (Teri Bibb) and her twittering female cohorts blushingly flirt with a troop of fresh-faced forest rangers, in songs seasoned more with corn than sauce, we can't be sure exactly whom the joke is on.


The trick, then, is to make this quaint lampoon as simply delightful on its own terms as possible, whether we get the references or not.


By that standard, Musical Theatre Guild's reading is a qualified success. Under director Jamie Rocco and tireless music director Tom Griep, its relentless charm offensive ultimately proves disarming, even winning.


The casting doesn't hurt. In the title role, Bibb nails the show's tone to a fare-thee-well: Beatifically sunny and smiley without being simpering, she lets us enjoy this impossible ideal of virtuous womanhood even as we laugh at it (a trick, by the way, that Jeanette MacDonald managed, too--or so it seems, at least, in retrospect).


Gordon Goodman's Capt. "Big" Jim Warington, is serviceably dashing, though he has neither the pipes of a Nelson Eddy nor Bibb's flawless deadpan; with his press-on smile and self-conscious line readings, he's winking a bit too much through the artifice.


Still, one need not have seen any of Eddy's and MacDonald's hilariously formal clinches to relish the exquisite moment when Bibb and Goodman, in the heat of an ardent moment, rush toward one another into an open-mouthed kiss--and instead begin to sing "Colorado Love Call."


As they embrace cheek to cheek and turn downstage to croon out their love, we have our cake and eat it, too: We can giggle at the sexual sublimation and sincerely swoon along with their harmonizing.


And there are moments to be savored in Christina Saffran Ashford's bouncy turn as an irrepressibly naughty maid; in Kevin McMahon's performance as her nerdy, cuckolded squeeze; in Carol Kline's over-the-top Teutonic diva ("the first to perform 'Carmen,' " she informs us, "in German"); and in Doug Carfrae's dapper lech. Milking stray titters from the show's egregiously stereotypical Native American roles are Michael G. Hawkins, Chuck Bergman and Eric Anderson.


In a brief duet with an offstage warbler, Little Mary sings, "You coo your 'coo coo' as all cuckoos do." That just about sums up the show's sense of humor: so on-the-nose it's supposed to be funny. In this modest revival, it often is.


"Little Mary Sunshine," Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Next playing at the Scherr Forum in the Thousand Oaks Civic Art Plaza's Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. $38. (805) 583-8700. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.