Exiting the theater after the confection titled Bernice Bobs Her Hair, I heard a woman describe the show as “cute.” Uh, oh, that’s not a compliment when describing musicals. Puppies, yes; musicals, no.
Based on a 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, Lyric Theatre’s current production is playing back at the Plaza Theatre after the company’s summer season downtown. The show is part of Lyric’s exemplary program to produce new works of musical theater. Counting next year, when the company already has a new show scheduled, Lyric will have staged world premieres of three new musicals in three years. Every professional theater company in Oklahoma should be following Lyric’s lead in presenting new work.
Producing brand-new musicals is risky for a theater company, but when you get down to cases, the shows still should be held to high standards for quality and worthiness. The challenge with Bernice lies in relating the subject matter to today’s audiences. Fitzgerald’s short story was published in The Saturday Evening Post and later in a collection called Flappers and Philosophers. This was a time when a young man would get his face slapped for telling a young woman she has a “kissable mouth.” It’s not giving away too much to tell you Bernice does, indeed, bob her hair back when that was a shocking act of nonconformity. Today, Bernice would bob her hair and then dye it cyan or magenta, if not every color in the rainbow.
Runs Wednesday to Sunday through Oct. 24.(405) 524-9312Tickets start at $25
By Adam Gwon (music and lyrics) and Julia Jordan (book and lyrics), Bernice depicts the country club set in St. Paul, Minn., (Fitzgerald’s hometown). Bernice, who hails from Eau Claire, Wisc., visits her cousin Marjorie Harvey, a popular girl who enjoys somewhat of a reputation. Bernice has stunted social skills, so Marjorie coaches her on how to be popular with the boys. Marjorie admonishes Bernice to stop ending sentences “with ‘lovely.’ ‘See ya’ sounds better.” But you better be careful when you create a whole new person. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.
A musical set in 1912 presents the composer with complicated choices. Do you write all period music, or will some of it sound like contemporary musical theater (rock and hip-hop musicals excepted)? Gwon has done some of both. Jazz, fox trots and waltzes are heard along with belted ballads and theater songs that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Sondheim musical.
Directed by Michael Baron, the production fills the Plaza stage with Lee Savage’s handsome, versatile set design that reflects midwestern understated sensibility. Jeffrey Meek’s period costumes look sharp. A six-piece combo, on stage in white dinner jackets, accompanies the show.
Most of the characters are college-age, and the production employs a lot of college students (all fine). Celeste Rose plays Bernice as a violet, if not exactly a shrinking one, at first and then as a thorny rose after she’s transformed by her cousin. Sarah Quinn Taylor gives a strong performance as Marjorie. Russell McCook does a credible job as Warren McIntyre, a Yale man and love interest of both Bernice and Marjorie.
The title has a double meaning. If you’re familiar with the Fitzgerald story, you know the climactic ending.
I observed a strange phenomenon at the reviewed performance. To wit, the audience did not give the show the usual standing ovation. Audiences give so many mediocrities standing O’s anymore that they’ve become meaningless. Why this show didn’t get the perfunctory ovation is a mystery to me. We’ve all seen audiences rise for much less than this. Odd.