Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Gracie for President at HART

Paul Roder and Mallie O'Brien star as Burns and Allen

HART Theatre keeps "the memories of early show business greats alive"

Paul Roder brings George Burns to life in the presidential-spoof  of a production.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

The only thing in theater that is riskier than attempting to imitate an icon is attempting to imitate two icons, especially when it’s two characters like George Burns and Gracie Allen. Hillsboro’s HART Theatre’s production of “Gracie for President” bravely takes on this challenge, and while the results are somewhat mixed, HART and director Norma Hill are to be congratulated on presenting an entertaining evening of show business nostalgia.

“Gracie for President” is a play based on legendary comedienne Gracie Allen’s tongue-in-cheek campaign for President in 1940. The entire production is staged as a Burns and Allen comedy, using a marvelously authentic set as it might have been used in one of George and Gracie’s television shows. As in the Burns and Allen Show, all of the actors remain in character throughout, except for George Burns (Paul Roder), who regularly breaks the “fourth wall” by addressing his audience.

In the five person cast, Roder’s outstanding portrayal of straight man George Burns really provides the glue that holds the production together. He clearly did his homework, as he captures Burns’ body language, timing, and delivery using the ever-present cigar to punctuate his wry performance. Particularly compelling are the scenes where he retreats silently to the sidelines, using only his facial expressions (and, of course, his cigar) to comment on the absurdity of his fellow actors.  As intended, the audience’s eyes are drawn away from center stage even as their ears follow the plot through the dialogue of the other characters.

Maille O’Brien, while less successful in capturing the essence of Gracie Allen’s dizzy persona, is nevertheless charmingly funny – audience members familiar with the character of Kitty Forman (“That ‘70s Show”) will recognize her comic style. She is particularly adept when delivering some of the show’s trickiest tongue-twisters, which she does with admirable precision.

The other three cast members have much less stage time but each carries multiple roles. Brick Andrews (Bill Goodwin/Reporter) is convincingly slick and unctuous as the Burns and Allen Show’s announcer and pitchman – and almost as unlikely a candidate for Hollywood’s Most Glamorous Man as Burns himself.  Becky Downs (Blanche Morton/Reporter/Saleswoman) has her finest moments as the terrified novice saleswoman, forced to mechanically repeat her entire pitch every time she is interrupted. Tony Smith’s blustering delivery as Harry Morton and a salesman and his comic British accent as a reporter call upon his versatility as an actor as he rounds out the small cast.

One of the great things about community theater is its ability to draw upon a specialized locale to personalize the show for its audience.  Playwright/Director Norma Hill, like Burns and Allen in their vaudeville days, incorporates local references to achieve this end. In the best early television tradition, co-sponsor Bunny Girt (who will always live in our memories as “Bunny Girt, State Farm Insurance Agent”) comes in for some delightful ribbing and scandalously over the-top promotion on several occasions – generating some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Productions like “Gracie for President” keep the memories of early show business greats alive, and introduce these classic characters to new generations of audiences. Thank you to the HART Theatre for doing its part in this noble endeavor!

“Gracie for President” runs through September 23d at the HART Theatre, 185 S.E. Washington Street, Hillsboro.

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