Stage Reviews

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    “Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly” and “I Must Be Mr. Boswell”

    By Dany Margolies/Associate Editor

    Dressed for excess

    On the very surface, “Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly” is five men in drag.

    For those willing to look, listen and think, however, this musical revue is a world populated by the cheeriest of messengers conveying the weightiest of messages. It satirizes — and satyrizes — politics, normalcy, the straight world, the gay world and the world in which it all comes together — the theater.

    “Conceived by” Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop, with sketches and lyrics by Waldrop, music by Dick Gallagher and costumes by Crabtree, the show follows Crabtree as he tries for a career in the theater — primarily as a costumer.

    We meet Crabtree (Christopher Carothers) as he is being reprimanded by his high school teacher/counselor, Miss Roundhole (David Pevsner). Crabtree is dressed as his idea of “Dream Curly,” the dancing version of the lead role in “Oklahoma.” She of no imagination wears a frumpy flowered dress that surrounds her amorphous breasts, with a gray topknot, gray sweater and sagging nylons.

    When Crabtree’s imagination triumphs by play’s end, he’s dressed once again as Curly, but in the professional quality costume he’s fought to create.

    Those costumes, and the many in between, come from a child’s imagination and an adult’s skill. Headdresses look like confection, including sugary 18th century wigs and cotton-candy clown hair. An underwater mermaid’s hair floats upward, until the grumpy impersonator (Loren Freeman) steps out of the suspended tresses. It may be a while, however, until we can look at hot pink again.

    The songs (yes, people like songs to go with the costumes) range from political satire to plain punny. Jim J. Bullock sings a torch song trilogy — longing for Newt, Strom and Rush and the best they have to offer (they’re short songs). Pevsner and Blake Hammond sing and dance the Vaudevillian “Light in the Loafers,” with tiny lightbulbs on their shoes choreographed to twinkle timely.

    The casting invites the audience to be open-minded and pleasantly surprised. Despite his television persona, Bullock sings with intelligence and craft. Despite his deceptive heft, Hammond moves as lightly as Astaire.

    It is Freeman, however, who seems to know, whichever role he is playing, that the only place to go when one is so far “over the top” is directly to the heart.

    Choreographer Keith Cromwell makes a laugh-a-step pastiche out of Broadway biggest clichs. Cheery lighting is by Paulie Jenkins.

    “Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly” plays the Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega. Tel. 310.657.7377.

    Something to speak of

    In 18th century England, people put their intellect into English. With no technology to speak of, the brilliant minds of the day played with language — writing, speaking, sharing ideas, even imagining the technology that would wait for our century.

    One such mind belonged to Samuel Johnson, England’s lexicographer, the man who compiled one of the great English language dictionaries (his definition of lexicographer included the description, “a harmless drudge”). Another of those minds belonged to James Boswell, who decided it was his purpose in life to be “assiduous in collecting Dr. Johnson’s wisdom and wit,” writing what has come to be known as “the most celebrated biography in the English language.”

    “I Must Be Mr. Boswell,” the one-man show written and performed by Kenneth Tigar with direction by Lawrence Osgood, playing at the Odyssey Theatre, leaves its audience feeling revitalized, longing for the past and hopeful for the future.

    The play follows Boswell for a day. Boswell awakens with a hangover, breakfasts, dresses and readies to attend Johnson’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, while reminiscing about his time spent in debate with Johnson and the intelligentsia of the day. In Act II, he returns from the service, mourning the anticipated decline of ideas.

    Boswell suffered from depression. He also suffered from the concern that he was not great. “But I derive an enthusiasm for great men,” he admits. So he resigns himself to his role in life: “I must be Mr. Boswell — no other.”

    Boswell was wrong about his assessment of art, however. “Words cannot describe our feelings,” he claims. “The finer points are lost, like the radiance of light can’t be painted.” Those who master writing and painting must do exactly that.

    As a writer, Tigar provides a tidy structure, wonderful anecdotes and enough interest to make the telling theatrically suspenseful.

    He also neatly weaves arguments pro and con on the issues of Boswell’s day — taxation, ethnic cleansing and finding cures for sexually transmitted diseases.

    As an actor, Tigar makes Boswell engaging, confiding and inspiring. Tigar also gives the people in Boswell’s life (whom Boswell mimics for us) ample physicality and personality.

    Costumes by Elly van Horne include night wear, undergarments, footwear, breeches, vest and jacket, made with the apparent care and attention to detail that Johnson gave each definition in his dictionary. The furnishings, however, are too modern, and Tigar’s work deserves a better set than that borrowed from the concurrent production at the theater.

    “I Must Be Mr. Boswell” runs Sundays, 2 p.m., and Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 4, at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. (north of Olympic), West Los Angeles. Tel. 310.477.2055.