With a winning cast and a laugh-out-loud vaudeville, The Pursuit of Happiness opened last weekend at Durango Melodrama.
The inimitable Daryl Kuntz has returned as music director, multitasking at his electric piano with songs, jokes and the occasional smack on stand-up cymbals for comic punctuation.
All in all, Part I of summer 2011 at the Henry Strater Theatre has a nice shine. But two things are different from the Diamond Circle Melodrama of the past. Kuntz has dispelled with the old, extended sing-along in favor of his own act. And the first play of the season is a rather odd choice.
The Pursuit of Happiness was written by a successful Broadway team, Lawrence and Armina Marshall Langner. Together with Dore Schary, they produced Sunrise at Campobello, which won the Tony for best play in 1958.
Pursuit is an earlier endeavor of the Langners. Its a Broadway remnant from the 1930s. Billed even then as a risqué romantic comedy, Pursuit is set during the American Revolution, but it is realistic in presentation and straight forward in exposition.
Stylistically, it isnt a Dion Boucicault potboiler such as After Dark, the second offering set to open June 24. Consequently, last Saturdays audience didnt seem to know what to do with Kuntzs instructions to boo, hiss, and cheer.
That said, Director Robert L. Johnson and company did a credible job of presenting a 1930s patriotic drama with a faint resemblance to melodramatic form.
Pursuit centers on the Kirkland family of Connecticut. Captain Kirkland (forthrightly played by Jason Schulof) has been wounded and now runs the family farm.
His wife, Comfort (a judgmental Protestant played to crisp precision by Rebecca Mason-Wygal), runs a strict house. Their daughter Prudence (a warm and winning Rachel Lacy) rebuffs one village suitor in favor of another, and therein resides the central dilemma.
Add some fire-and-brimstone speeches by the Rev. Lyman Banks (Daniel Merritt, a fine stand-in for the rigid right of any era), some not too smart gamesmanship by Sheriff Thad Jennings (a deliciously smarmy Joey Gugliemelli), and you have everything except a ripe servant girl (the pretty Julia Judge), a manservant (the dutiful Mike Moran) and a hero, Lieutenant Max Christmann (played by the energetic and appealing Sean Johnson).
Christmann is a Hessian mercenary. He has deserted the British Army and stumbles into the Kirkland farm. Taken by American ideals and puzzled by our odd customs, he wants to shift sides, join the revolutionaries and eventually become a citizen.
So enamored of the American dream of freedom, Christmann reads aloud from his own copy of the Declaration of Independence, hence the title of the play.
The action is propelled by the rivalry over Prudence. It also unfolds as a series of arguments for and against the idea of freedom. Some of the patriotic speeches may have inspired Strater Hotel owner Rod Barker to choose the play. Hes been quoted as such.
The cast does a good job of bringing Pursuit to life, but its the vaudeville that sparks with energy. Beginning with a chorus from Kiss Me Kate, the players perform silly sketches and bits of other Broadway musicals. A crisp tap dance salutes Fred Astaires Puttin on the Ritz.
And theres a contemporary tip of the hat to Dancing with the Stars. A highlight is Mason-Wygals hilarious rendition of Ive Got Your Picture, Shes Got You.
The aim is pure fun, and the summer 2011 cast delivers on that mission.
Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at email@example.com.