Several Bwoggers attended the Friday night premiere of The Pale Blue’s Once Upon a Fortnight in the Lerner Black Box. It was a laugh-out-loud show with a lot of promise, but plagued by script and production issues. Arts Editor Riva Weinstein gives her thoughts.
As we enter the Lerner Black Box, we’re handed programs with a picture of a leaping ballerina. The title reads DUCK SWAMP: A New Opera. In full tuxedo, Brent Morden (CC ’19) enters the stage, lifting his arms to the audience. “This is an opera, didn’t you all know?” he warbles. “A serious opera.” The pit swells. With a sudden thud, his co-writer, Daniel Treatman (GS/JTS ’20) collapses onto the stage. It’s murder!
Not, in fact, a ballet by brilliant composers Seymour Butz and Annie Position, the Pale Blue’s Once Upon a Fortnight is an original musical that parodies the noir detective genre. In the mid-80’s, the mayor of New York City is found murdered. Police Commissioner Bruce Fort (Reuben Rahmeyer, SEAS ‘21) recruits his ex-partner in the detective game, Gordon Fine (Robert Willard, CC ’20), to solve the killing. Fine himself gets help from two unpaid interns, Judy (Alexandra Kapilian, CC ‘20) and Rudy (Jonathan Kapilian, SEAS ‘20). While Fine works on the case (or rather, flirts with Fort’s daughter), Fort is encouraged by his secretary Connie (Isobel Obrecht, BC ‘22) to run for mayor himself. Despite the lack of actual detective work, they eventually solve the case by running straight into the barrel of the killer’s gun. (The killer’s banana. The guns are bananas.)
Morden and Treatman’s writing shines in the first half of Act 1. A mixture of clever, genre-savvy, Who’s On First-style wordplay (Fort’s “I know a guy” bit is a standout) and self-consciously cheesy puns had me in stitches. Quick-fire physical gags appropriated slapstick humor to terrific effect: Fine says “Here’s the deal,” deals a deck of cards, and then adds “And here’s the situation”. The best moments of the show happened when Morden and Treatman truly played with the genre and subverted archetypes. Sexy blonde secretary Connie pulls a contract out of her cleavage; Commissioner Fort responds, “Gross.”
But as the interminably long first act drags on, the writing gets worse. The long buildup to Gordon Fine joining the case is not paid off with any actual detective work. Certain jokes – like the hilarious “kazoo” gag for voices on the other end of the phone, and Connie walking in on Fort and his intern Joey (Nicolas Duran, CC ‘21) in compromising positions – are not followed through on, or become inconsistent. Instead, the story gets tied up in an uninteresting subplot about Fort running for mayor, and a frankly creepy flirtationship between the 51-year-old Fine and Fort’s daughter, Misty (Michaelle DiMaggio-Potter, CC ‘20).
The characters were not one-dimensional so much as very inconsistent, particularly the female characters. Judy’s characterization switches randomly between a lazy student, an intelligent and empowered young professional, and a well-meaning ingenue. Connie can’t seem to decide whether she is a dumb blonde or a smart one, until she collapses into a soulless femme fatale. All of Misty’s personality bleeds out the moment she steps into a room with Fine. This made all of the romantic relationships unbelievable, and had me wishing that the more interesting relationship between Misty and Joey had been followed through on instead.
There is a simple reason for why most of the audience wasn’t laughing during the show: timing. It is very, very difficult to produce a musical, especially a comedic one, because both musical cohesion and comedy rely on razor-perfect timing. For such a long and complicated show, the team did an admirable job. But few of the actors, although proficient, had the comedic timing (or volume) to make the audience’s sides split. The pit and sound team also suffered a few missteps and late cues.
The two standout performers of Once Upon a Fortnight were Robert Willard and Nicholas Duran. Willard’s physical charisma was excellent, and he was loud enough when he sang that I could actually make out the lyrics. Duran’s adorable, bouncy portrayal of Joey made him the most consistent and interesting character in the show. Rahmeyer, Alexandra Kapilian, Obrecht and DiMaggio-Potter all displayed beautiful voices and competent acting; but since the Black Box isn’t an ideal space for mics, their voices were drowned out by the pit and crucial plot details were lost.
As usual, Brent Morden’s musical composition was excellent. Smooth jazz flows through the entire show, the only element that really makes it feel “noir.” The lyrics, when I could hear them, were as good as the rest of the writing. The contrast between Fort’s slow diction and Gordon’s frenetic spiel in “Tell Me Why” would have made Meredith Willson proud. Only the melodies, which were not especially catchy or interesting, fell flat.
The minimal costume and set design didn’t ground the show in either the world of 1930’s crime noir movies, or in the 1980’s when the play is actually set, but floated nebulously between them. Given a bigger budget, the production could make a more deliberate choice between the two eras – or better still, deliberately contrast them for laughs. (I can imagine Gordon Fines smoking underneath a lamppost as he struggles to operate his pager.)
I saw enormous potential in Once Upon a Fortnight. With its wonderful music and its witty, campy writing style, I truly think it could reach Broadway someday. But the creators have a lot of work to do before then. The first act, put simply, should be halved. The subplots should be streamlined, and the characters – especially the women – made more consistent. The simple addition of a bigger budget and more time to prepare could fix virtually all the problems relating to sound, visual design, and transitions.
Except the banana guns. When it goes to Broadway, they should definitely keep the banana guns.
Once Upon a Fortnight will be playing in the Lerner Black Box Saturday, Dec. 10 at 7 PM and Sunday at 11 AM. Reserve tickets online.