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High comedy: cast members from HMT’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

Comedy of Era
By Kathryn Ceceri

Laughter on the 23rd Floor
By Neil Simon, directed by Steve Coats
Home Made Theater, Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Springs, through May 9

In the 1950s, the best comedic minds of the era labored together to produce a kind of Saturday Night Live for the Cold War generation. Your Show of Shows, a 90-minute live variety program starring the mad genius Sid Caesar, ruled the airwaves, spawning an equally eccentric team of writers that included Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame), and Broadway perennial Neil Simon, who turned his recollections into the 2001 play Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

If the setup seems familiar—a tableful of wisecracking funnymen (and a one-of-the-boys funnywoman) in New York trying to one-up each other’s jokes as they hammer out this week’s show for their crazy, demanding boss—it’s because both The Dick Van Dyke Show and the 1982 movie My Favorite Year also drew on YSOS’s backstage meshuggeners for their inspiration. But unlike those earlier incarnations, Laughter isn’t really going for laughs so much as trying to re-create a moment in time, when McCarthyism was in full swing and TV networks were starting to rein in the innovators who’d until then had free run of the new medium to try to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Laughter doesn’t have a lot of plot; it’s really all about its characters, and Home Made Theater’s strong cast makes each individual stand out while letting us see how connected they are to one another. Simon’s alter-ego Lucas (Skidmore College sophomore Dana Levin), the newest member of the crew, is our liaison to the other characters: Milt (David Campbell), playing out his midlife crisis by trying to break the land-speed record from Scarsdale to Manhattan; Val (David Orr), the Russian immigrant who hires a tutor to get his English expletives right; Brian (Kory Checca), who struts in each Monday certain he’ll be on his way to Hollywood by Friday; nerdy Kenny (Peter Burleigh), who likes to take charge; Carol (Noelle Le Chevalier), stylish in a ’50s-TV-mom sort of way; and Helen (Mary Corinne Miller), the secretary who doesn’t quite get the jokes.

As ringleader Max Prince, Ron DeLucia is stretching his acting wings after such earlier roles as Bob Cratchit from last December’s A Christmas Carol, but for the most part he pulls it off. Max is a larger-than-life figure whose emotions run so high he’s a menace stalking around the office. Supported by the energy level of the rest of the cast and Steve Coats’ tight directing, DeLucia may not “be” Max Prince, but certainly sells us on his character. The real surprise in the ensemble is Jonathan Getnick, who plays the hypochondriacal Ira. In HMT’s last production, Getnick made a barely noticeable French king in The Lion in Winter. Here he gives a Woody Allenesque performance that draws some of the biggest laughs of the evening, in scenes like the “funny contest” with Brian.

Unlike such Simon classics as The Odd Couple, though, the real conflict in Laughter isn’t between the characters but with outside forces like McCarthy and NBC—or with their inner demons. And there’s a bit of a modern-day sensibility imposed on the past in the way everyone notices Brian’s smoking but nobody bats an eye when Carol returns to work after having a baby. The result feels like a Simon comedy written for the History Channel. But the effect isn’t fatal. Laughter on the 23rd Floor still has enough hysterical moments to make a visit to the Golden Age of Television worth the ride.

Kiddin’ Around

Really Rosie
Book and lyrics by Maurice Sendak, music by Carole King
Directed and choreographed by Vikki Hastings, New York State Theatre Institute, through April 30

Really Rosie is a delight, full of the magic of children singing and performing enthusiastically onstage. At 75 minutes, the New York State Theatre Institute’s production briskly romps through this imaginatively angsty show, capturing the bursts of joy that this work (originally seen as a 1975 children’s TV special) should inspire. With a look and book by acclaimed artist Maurice Sendak and music by the incomparable Carole King, Really Rosie has been a hit for almost 30 years. Part Mickey Mouse Club, part Sesame Street, part Rugrats on Ice (minus the skates), Really Rosie is the embodiment of what NYSTI can achieve on stage: big whooping giggles, huge warm fuzzies, and entertaining cuteness. For those who despair that children’s theater is just dumbed-down language, bright costumes, hyperbolic gestures and big facial expressions, Really Rosie will give a welcomed jolt. If you’ve got kids, get tickets.

Really Rosie tells the story of a day in the life of the 10-year-old sparkplug, Rosie (Shannon Rafferty), who lives on the segregated section of Avenue P in Brooklyn with her despised tagalong younger sister Chicken Soup (Jade McClenahan), along with her best friends: Kathy (Alyson Lange), the feisty aide de camp; the imaginative Alligator (Lawson Young) in appropriate green costume; Johnny (Tom Callahan), the loner reader with a quote or fact for every situation; and the apathetic grump, Pierre (John Scala), who says “I don’t care” until he’s eaten whole by a lion. The 13 songs in the show highlight the joie de vivre of young lives, from the proud ego-boasting title song to the fanciful alliterative alphabet anthem “Alligators All Around” to the rousing finale “Chicken Soup With Rice,” its amalgam of dance styles ending with an impressive chorus-line kick. NYSTI’s Really Rosie will leave you humming in the aisles as you exit, hungry for more.

Director and choreographer Vikki Hastings keeps the kids focused and stages Really Rosie with some really peppy pop. The delightful cast brings an infectious energy, and there’s nary a wandering eye nor awkward pause during the nonmusical moments, a rare phenomenon in middle-school musicals. With a cast of institute interns or “Young people affiliated with the NYS Theatre Institute,” this is the crème de la crème of area adolescent performers, and they fill the stage with great panache.

While the energy was evenly exhibited by all the cast, special note should be made of Shannon Rafferty as the red-haired, red-evening-gown- and feathered-hat-wearing Rosie, who preens and puffs with the exaggerated self-assurance of a pint-sized Mama Rose (of Gypsy fame); 30 years from now Rafferty will do a “Rose’s Turn” that will burn up the stage. Equally impressive was Lawson Young as Alligator: Young (who with her diminutive stature and pale blond hair looks like she followed the light from the movie Poltergeist) not only turns in a high-energy rendering of “Alligators All Around,” but she also brings a snap and focus to all the songs that she’s in, which would be no mean feat for even mature performers of NYSTI’s resident company. Young has rhythm and a whole lot more. With performances like these, Really Rosie is a show that will please friends, family, and complete strangers who just like old-school entertainment performed by new school kids.

—James Yeara

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