Ain't We Got Fun
nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
July 28, 2005
If a male singer in the 1920s and '30s recorded a popular song called “The Man I Love” for a shellac 78 record, he could not change the lyric to “The Girl I Love” due to the strict rules of song publishers. As a result, many recordings from this time by the likes of Bing Crosby and various popular dance bands shockingly celebrate what sound like “gay” sentiments to our contemporary ears. Listeners of the time don’t seem to have batted an eye, even when a male crooners sang their hearts out on songs with titles like “He’s My Secret Passion.”
These wonderful historical recordings provided the inspiration for Michael McFaden’s delightful musical Ain’t We Got Fun, which plays in a workshop production as part of the 3rd Annual Fresh Fruit Festival. McFaden has built a book around songs from the '20s and '30s and come up with a traditionally-structured musical comedy about the ups and downs in the lives of two boys in love.
The plot of Ain’t We Got Fun is appropriately old-fashioned, but with a “boy meets boy” twist. The story centers on Benny (Daniel Vincent) and Oscar (Bryan Lelek), two young men from the resort town of South Haven, Michigan, who venture to nearby Chicago and get caught up in the big city’s racy scene. The show mostly is an upbeat song and dance affair, but in the second act McFaden works in darker themes, including the Stock Market crash of 1929, the Mob, and prostitution. By beginning and ending each act with older versions of the characters in 2002, McFaden has come up with a framing device that puts the story in contemporary perspective and also adds some comic relief as characters comment on just how much, and in some respects how little, things have changed.
The production is cleverly conceived, with some particularly nice touches. The use of a barbershop quartet “chorus” called The Bearcats (Robert M. Bowden, Shawn Carnes, L.T. Kirk, and McFaden) is very effective, reminding us that acceptable all-male activities at that time were not limited to sports (the great vocal arrangements are by Douglas Coates). And a flickering “old-time” film sequence depicting men scantily costumed as iconic “masculine” types (cowboy, gladiator, Zorro, American Indian, etc.) is a hilariously clunky Busby Berkeley tribute.
The physical production makes the most of very little. The costumes by Stephen Randolph are period-perfect; Michael Lenzo’s lighting design is simple if perhaps a bit too shadowy. The recorded musical accompaniment by Mark Beall and John Todd is fine, but sometimes is too loud for the singers to be heard, and sometimes begins a beat or two too late. In fact, the slow pacing of the piece is its most serious problem.
The highlight of the evening is the scene-stealing performance of Mark Middleton as Miss Amanda Luze, the drag queen proprietress of “Amanda Land,” a gay Chicago speakeasy where much of the action takes place. Middleton’s campy croaking, fabulous gams, and hilarious deadpan have to be seen to be believed. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. As Benny, Daniel Vincent is a polished performer with a fine voice, and he particularly captures the naïve yet naughty spirit of the piece. Bryan Lelek as Oscar is not as accomplished a performer, but shows comic flair in some of the slapstick sequences. Melissa Landry is sweet as the younger Chloe, who is literally hopelessly in love with the boy-crazy Oscar, and her second-act romance with “Meathook,” the speakeasy’s hulking doorman (Steve Mogck), is in a great musical comedy tradition of secondary love interests.
The primary charm of the piece is that it captures in its characters the combination of naiveté and wild pleasure-seeking that made the Roaring '20s so notorious and so fascinating. Ain't We Got Fun is corny and nostalgic in the best way but still manages to be fresh and original—who could ask for anything more?