The People vs. MONA
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 15, 2007
The People vs. Mona describes itself as a "musical mystery screwball comedy." Now, to be honest, the mystery isn't all that exciting, and the comedy is often just this side of corny. But the music is tuneful and infectious, especially as played by the three-man onstage band (Dan Bailey on keyboards, Jason Chimonides on guitar, and the larger-than-life Ritt Henn on bass). And the show overall, breaking the fourth wall consistently but gently to reach out cheerfully into the audience, is a great deal of old-fashioned fun.
When I tell you that the composer-lyricist-co-librettist, Jim Wann, was one of the creators of the enduring hit Pump Boys and Dinettes, you'll probably immediately get a sense for the flavor of this show. With Patricia Miller, co-librettist and also his wife, Wann has put together a down-home Southern-style party of a musical that feels destined for a long life in cozy theatres all around the USA.
The hero of The People vs. Mona is Jim Summerford, an ingratiating but not terribly successful lawyer in the small town of Tippo, Georgia. Jim's fiancee, Mavis Frye, is the town's prosecuting attorney; they have been antagonists in dozens of cases, and Jim has lost every single one.
But he's determined to win this one: it involves Mona Katt, accused of murdering her husband just a few hours after their wedding. Mona is the proprietress of the town's watering hole/juke joint, the Frog Pad, and if she's convicted it's likely that her business will go kerflooey. It develops that some of the moneyed folks in town would be very happy to see the Frog Pad disappear, because they'd like to tear it down and replace it with a riverboat casino gambling establishment. It develops further that Mavis, who wants to be Tippo's mayor, is the gambling initiative's leading advocate.
Is there a conspiracy afoot, one that involves framing Mona for the murder? If Mona didn't kill her sleazebag of a late husband, then who did: Tish Thomas, his former lover? Officer Bell, the cop who yearns to be a singer? Dr. Bloodweather, the dentist with a past? Or could it even be Mavis herself?
You will find out, but I wager you won't much care; the plot is not the main attraction here by a long shot. The musical numbers carry the show—there are about 20 of them, and most of them are light-hearted charm songs that introduce us to one of the many eccentric personages who pass through this improbable tale.
Many of these come across as genuinely joyous: Richard Binder, who plays Jim, has a great likable presence and a fine singing voice, and among his co-stars David Jon Wilson (as Officer Bell) and Omri Schein (as Bloodweather and several other oddball characters) are especially skillful. (Alas, several others in the company, notably Mariand Torres, who plays Mona, are not up to the demands of their roles.)
The band, though, is just terrific throughout. And Kate Middleton's direction feels both seamless and flawless; the transitions between numbers and scenes are effortless, the pacing is excellent, and the good spirits never let up. Praise is also due Travis McHale, whose lighting and set design are Broadway caliber. The high quality of Middleton and McHale's work actually accentuates the poor quality of Elisa R. Richards's costumes (she has the judge, court clerk, and prosecutor in their elegant, sophisticated duds during the opening scene, when we're being introduced to the town of Tippo, and they stick out like sore thumbs) and Jill Gorrie's monotonous choreography. When The People vs. Mona is good, it's VERY good: you really want the unsuccessful elements to be fixed.
This is not a particularly sophisticated show, nor a deep one; it states its intentions right up front, to give the audience a hearty and happy good time, and it generally delivers on that promise. And it's completely appropriate for every age group.