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Hot numbers:(l-r) Fischer, Fernandez, McCratney and Malone in Bingo.

Working-Class Act
By James Yeara

By Michael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg, directed by Glenn Casale

Adirondack Theatre Festival, Messiah Parish House, Glens Falls, through July 13

The Adirondack Theatre Festival has mastered the art of producing real musicals for real people. As with last year’s comic gem Guys on Ice, the newest ATF offering is a first-rate regional premiere of a musical centered on the lives and loves of the working class, who are treated with dignity and integrity. Bingo is a 90-minute new musical boasting a tongue-in-cheek book, lots of feel-good songs and poppin’ fresh performances. You won’t get big-budget splash or celebrity dash, but you will get more than your ticket-price worth of straight-on humor and giggling tunes—all from characters you’d be happy to buy a beer for.

Performed perfectly in the Church of the Messiah Parish House (complete with lighted bingo board), Bingo focuses on the gambling-obsessed women of Hamerin County (presumably somewhere in Florida) during Hurricane Dora. The slight book has the feel of a soap opera gone trailer-park seedy. Vern (red-haired Liz McCratney, who sings and acts with the brass larynx of an actress destined to be a perfect Mama Rose) bullies her bingo-playing buddies: the comely blonde, Honey (Stacia Fernandez), whose head and heels are as light as her hair, as her “387 and a half” lovers can attest; and the aptly named Patsy (Lori Fischer, creator of the excellent Barbara’s Blue Kitchen) with her collection of 125 multicolored rabbit feet. Minnie (Lisa Asher, who also conducts the audience participation with ease) manages the three friends during the bingo games to the calling of Sam (Kilty Reidy). The five are connected by more than the “daubing” of bingo numbers, the bouncing of ping-pong balls, and the eating of bad homemade lemon squares. Through a hilarious series of flashbacks, the story unfolds of how Vern cast out her best friend Bernice (Jan Leigh Herndon, possessor of a smile that needs no lights to shine) 15 years ago, and how Bernice’s daughter Alison (a hysterical Beth Malone, who sings past the campiness of the tunes) reconciles the friends.

It’s impossible to keep from giggling at the silliness of Bingo. The 12 songs in the musical zip along, and the numbers are like good snack food. The inclusion of the audience during bingo games is engaging, and the earthiness of the humor—“It’s not the size of the prize that matters,” Sam pointedly says to a panting Honey, “it’s how long you play the game”—keeps the laughter dancing along the groan line.

Particularly funny are an inspired staging of a trio of 4-foot-high troll dolls dancing backup during Patsy’s “I Still Believe in You,” Honey’s and Sam’s “Gentleman Caller,” and Alison’s “Ratchet’s Lament.” (After revealing she is Nurse Ratchet’s understudy in an “off-off-off-off Broadway” production of a musical version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Alison sings her big number with bug-eyed glee that is chillingly funny.) While the seven performers all have their individual moments, Malone shines throughout with her high-wattage, live-wire performance and amazing singing—at the climactic bingo showdown with Vern, Malone hits a 27-second-long note that leaves the audience even more breathless than the singer. Malone’s Alison is the highlight of a show that leaves the audience feeling as good as it feels to shout “bingo!”

Mind Games

Ears on a Beatle
Written and directed by Mark St. Germain

Consolati Performing Arts Center, Barrington Stage Company, Sheffield, Mass., through July 19

There’s a defining moment in the world-premiere production of Mark St. Germain’s Ears on a Beatle three scenes before its conclusion. Experienced FBI agent Howard Ballantine (Dan Lauria) tries to hold together rookie undercover agent Dan McClure (Bill Dawes). They’re in Washington Square Park in the early, early morning after Nixon’s defeat of McGovern in the 1972 election. McClure is drunk, but he’s more out of control due to his disillusionment with his surveillance subject, John Lennon. McClure flails, screams, drinks and confesses—and in the world of Ears on a Beatle, confession isn’t good for the soul or the body. Ballantine grows more desperate in his attempts to quiet McClure.

The paranoia is thick: “They” really are out to get us. The FBI has agents everywhere. Everyone has a file. And when Ballantine shakes McClure, yelling, “Give up or grow up, kid,” the stakes are clear. Ballantine looks around the two of them, then up to the rooftops, then to the heavens, as if God may be the great FBI director in the sky. That one look of concern, defiance, and culpability captures what Ears on a Beatle is all about.

The two-character play is an engaging 90-minute fantasy based on the historical records of the FBI’s surveillance of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from 1971 through Dec. 8, 1972, and the efforts to deport the pair for their antiwar, anti-Nixon efforts. The two FBI agents may not be real, but according to FBI records (copies of which are posted in the lobby of Barrington Stage), the drama is. Playwright St. Germain (Camping with Henry and Tom, Forgiving Typhoid Mary) creates two engaging characters in the doppelgangers Ballantine and McClure, and the celebrity voice-overs—Dick Cavett, Arlo Guthrie, Fred Savage (co-star with Dan Lauria in TV’s The Wonder Years)—reading actual news reports between scenes give Ears on a Beatle a historical spine with relevance. The parallels to the age of the Patriot Act are very clear.

Ears on a Beatle also is a drama about the relationships between fathers and children. While the scenes are framed by the events from 1971 through Lennon’s assassination (the play is thick with conspiracy) on Dec. 8, 1980, equally interesting is the way the two FBI agents deal with their children, their wives, their fathers, their places in life and the consequences of their actions. Ears on a Beatle is a rich play that mines more than the mere celebrity of John Lennon; through Ballantine’s and McClure’s reactions to watching and evaluating Lennon, they watch and evaluate their own lives. What is created is a play that is both political and personal, that makes human both the icon and the morally twisted FBI agents.

The set by Eric Renschler is perfect: Sixteen rows across by 13 rows high of gray plastic file boxes against the upstage wall. Sections open to show the equipment for taping conversations, or for lockers holding disguises (Melissa Panzarello’s costumes show the era and the characters exactly, catching the changes in both). The sound design by Randy Hansen is encompassing and smart. (It’s tough to listen to Lennon’s “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” as you walk into the theater and to “Imagine” as you exit.) Lauria and Dawes give performances as exacting and smart as the stagecraft, and as funny and illuminating as the text of Ears on a Beatle. Lauria captures the latent decency I hope hides in the heart of everyone, while Dawes is heartbreaking as the idealist whose heart grows so still after his disillusionment that it seems to stop, and he is able to move only through habit. Ears on a Beatle will please not just the Beatles fans, not just the admirers of political dramas, not just the social paranoids. It’s a play for all.

—James Yeara

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