Produced by: TheatreWorks
Featuring: Steve Brady, Sarah Moser, Suzanne Grodner and Michael Storm
Directed by: Stephen Brackett
When: July 9 through August 2, 2014
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California
Tickets:$19-$74 (discounts available). Visit theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960
truly poignant, truly charming
It's good there are several big-laugh jokes in "The Great Pretender" at TheatreWorks, because the deeply moving, sweetly sad parts need the balance.
It's the story of the core trio behind Mr. Felt's TV show for children, who are mourning the death of Mr. Felt's wife and show partner, Marilyn.
They've been away from the show for a year, but now the star, Roy, his director, Tom, and his surviving co-star, Carol, are back in their little studio to audition young Jodi to replace Marilyn.
Roy has been Mr. Felt, and Carol has been one of his puppet friends, for decades. Tom has directed the show for 15 years. Jodi grew up watching and loving the show.
The old pros are each still terribly crushed by the loss of Marilyn, who was the other key puppet on the show, Francis (or Frances; gender was never mentioned, Roy explained). Jodi, who does Francis' voice extremely well, is overly thrilled to be there, but has a lot to learn about performance.
Mr. Felt is more like Mr. Rogers and nothing like Soupy Sales. Playwright David West Read says his most direct influence was a show he grew up with in Canada, "Mr. Dressup," who would find new costumes in his "Tickle Trunk."
It's a sweet show. As he uses scissors in the opening flashback to cut a tissue box, he tells the TV audience, "I love the crunch, crunch, crunch sound the scissors make." His wife, as the puppet Francis, says, "You need to get out more."
Tom found and brought Jodi in, to audition. Carol, who performs as a puppet and wants to add another, doesn't want anybody new in the show. Roy wants to give the kid a chance.
Steve Brady makes a wonderful Mr. Felt, soft-spoken and non-threatening, who, with help from his puppet friends, demonstrates little crafts with household materials (a ukulele from an empty tissue box and some rubber bands), and plays dress-up with costumes from his "Clapping Closet." But he is also plenty forceful when he needs to be, the puppeteer with a steel spine.
Suzanne Grodner often seen at TheatreWorks is hilarious as Carol, who has some bits that tell us a lot about her and what she's going through in life. She seems kind of anti-correctness, when not working as a puppeteer. Her new purse, she says, bought with her ex-man's money, is made of dolphin skin. (She uses the blow hole to keep coins, she says.) "Dora the Explorer," she says, is "just another Mexican, taking American jobs."
She has the key dramatic moment in the show, one that actually draws gasps from the audience.
And she has a long dialogue talking about the screenplay she is writing about "Southpaw," the cat who plays baseball. It is completely nutty, profane, and says something about the way some creative minds work. Hilarious segment.
Michael Storm is solid as the director, Tom, who is worried about the Mr. Felt show and maybe thinking of taking a job with the "Dora the Explorer" show.
Enter Jodi, wonderfully, charmingly and beautifully played by Sarah Moser, who loved the Mr. Felt show so much as a kid that she kept a poster of him on her ceiling in college, which surprised the boyfriends she brought home.
She felt protected when she watched his show, Jodi tells Roy.
She is great at re-creating Francis' voice, and Roy helps her learn to be a puppeteer, but eventually everybody realizes she will never be Marilyn, who was Francis.
The core trio Roy, Carol and Tom all have to learn, a year later, how to go on without Marilyn.
It's a brilliant script, one to enjoy in performance and one to savor in thinking about it later.
My only small criticism of the show, ably directed by Stephen Brackett, is that the actors were not miked, except for when performing as puppets. Thankfully on Saturday night at Lucie Stern Theatre the audience was dead silent, so we could mostly hear the dialogue, but miking would have helped. Early on, Moser speaks to the side, which made sense for acting, if not for hearing; and late in the show, in a key moment, Brady was so soft-spoken with a bit of dialogue that I wonder if even the other actors in the scene heard him.
Cathleen Edwards' costumes are wonderful, and I'm guessing that if TheatreWorks ever holds another Anything Goes gala, they will be snapped up early. Jodi makes her own pants, which leads to many jokes. And Mr. Felt's costumes the Sgt. Pepper jacket and the wise old owl, especially are delightful.
Making his TheatreWorks debut, Daniel Zimmerman produced a fun set that changes from a little TV studio with excellent lighting from TheatreWorks vet Paul Toben to a very nice New York apartment.
David Valentine's puppets are completely charming.
The incidental music during scene changes are usually Beatles tunes, in covers. Also charming.
Email John Orr at email@example.com