The spoof of the Pudding

I don't like musical comedies. I'm not willing to suspend disbelief to the point where I accept people bursting spontaneously into song. That may happen once in a lifetime or so, but if someone really burst into song, there wouldn't be six other people there who knew the words, too, and a little dance to go along with it. And why are they so relentlessly cheerful in such a predictable way when the world can be so unpredictably cheerless? Do they really expect to make me happy with those hackneyed formulas?

On the other hand, I loved the Hasty Pudding Theatricals' "A Little Knife Music." The play, following a 136-year-old Harvard tradition, is an all-male production. This year's oeuvre is a takeoff on the Broadway hit "Sweeney Todd." The production is so ridiculous it wouldn't dare adk you to suspend your disbelief. In fact, "A Little Knife Music," a twisted tale of murder by poison bagels and true love nonetheless, is a chance to exercise your disbelief.

The Hasty Pudding Theatricals were the breeding grounds for musical comedy in America. In 1882, the company put on Owns Wiste's adaptation, also in drag, of Virgil's 'Aeneid.' It was the first musical comedy in America. It was a hit, strangely enough, and played in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Since then, musical comedy has taken off as one of America's most familiar, well-loved (don't ask me why) theater forms. The Hasty Pudding Theatricals have gotten progressively glossier, as well. The director and choreographer, the designers and the music dirctors are all professionals, and this year their budget was over $150,000. But through it all, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals have retained the true musical comedy trappings.

No one in a wig and padding tries to use a falsetto voice, for example. John Belucci (not to be confused with hollywood's John Belushi), who plays Helena Baskitt, the murderess in black chignon, nipped-waist purple Victorian dress and black lipstick, has a habit of glaring darkly under his eyebrows at intense moments and lowering his voice to sing sinister lyrics. And though offstage he refers to Doug Fitch, who plays Mae B Thistyme, as "my little daughter," he is explaining how impressed he is with Fitch's athletics (as Mae, he does some wonderful somersaults and handsprings which set his pink lace petticoats arustle) and how dancing is even more exhausting than sports.

He talks with relish of "the kick line," another Hasty Pudding tradition, a chorus line where everyone flashes an ungainly bit of leg and spurious garter in a preposterous but well-drilled can-can. Being the star, he almost didn't get to dance in it, but insisted. "I love kicking," he says.

In rehearsals, he stands in the middle in his Levis and sweater, frowning and making ticking noises with his mouth as he keeps in time. Musical comedy, he says, is a whole new thing for him. He has acted in plays, but never has he used his body as much as he does in this. Never has he been so worn out. He reties a white scarf that looks, annd is used, like a towel and retires for a nap.

It is Strawberry Night, the night reserved for members of the Hasty Pudding Club. The audience is Harvardish, all right: lots of gray flannel and Oxford cloth, and in one of the early song-and-dance routines, somes's beeper sounds. There are women in the audience, too, though, and though the cast is all male, most of the professionals and stage hands are women.

Pamela Hunt, the director and choreographer, up from New York to put on her second Hasty Pudding show, doesn't find this hard to bear. "I'm perfectly happy to be surrounded by 16 nice young men," she says.

And all this female inpersoation doesn't bother her, either. The women they are protraying are bizarre character types rather than women, she says, and she feels all those stereotypes, as well as some of the othe accoutrements, were shed so long ago that the beautiful but dumb (though acrobatic) blonde portrayed by Doug Fitch, for example, is harmless. When she's backstage, she says, surrounded by all the padded bras, garter belts, and fluffy crinolines "which we don't even wear any more," she feels everything involved is safely in the realm of history.

She's not the first woman director. The woman who preceded her gave her two pieces of advice: bring vitamins and bring all the warm clothes you can. Nothing about dealing with men, she remarks, and perfectly to the point. The old Hasty Pudding Club building isn't always heated.%TShe noticed quickly that amateurs make up for their lack of experience with that peculiar oveabundance of energy people seem to have from ages 19,21. The entire production was done in three and a half weeks of rehearsals. It's a Broadway-caliber show, she says, of the sort that would take anyone else sex weeks.

"They're all carrying full academic loads," she says, "though I don't know how lightly they're carrying them. Quite lightly, on gathers.

Maybe higher education is an asset. "Once I said, 'You can figure this out, you go to Harvard,'" she says, "and they all lost their cool and said 'Don't ever say that.'" Nonetheless, she does find them bright and quick to pick up direction though they can be too analytical, trying to figure out why she would want them to start their routine on the right foot particularly, when that would mean . . . and she just has to tell them not to think about it. She's tiny but powerful, yipping them through their tap-dancing number like a collie dog among sheep. "OK, guys, could we rehearse?" she'll say when an excess of sophomoric humor (which is, after all, what this is all about) erupts. She dashes up on stange in her tap shoes, tight pants, and T-shirt and resolutely hooks arms with John Belucci, steering him through Helena Baskitt's romantic duet with the lawyer Lorne Order.

It has been 3 1/2 weeks, and at the last rehearsal there are so many soda cans and paper cups onstange it has to be swept with a janitor's broom before anyone can even dance. The cast looks haggard in begrimed Levis, and the technical crew is sitting behind a slab of plywood spread over the backs of the seats in the middle of the house, wondering aloud about the spotlights for a number with four people who must be seen separately, and also about whether the cherry yogurt amid the rubble on the makeshift table has been there two days or three.

The posters fron 1875 and before hung around the Hasty Pudding Theater only seem to make it bleaker, and to make matters worse, the kick line rehearses its whole routine three times in a row.

But somehow, by the time the audience in their flannels and executive-chic evening skirts arrive, everything has been garbage-bagged and tidied. The sets are beautiful - a foggy London night just as dark, smoky and mysterious as a foggy London night on Broadway. People plunge expertly through their routines, only once in a while clapping their hands to their wigs.

The most wonderful moment is when three statues in a park break into song about eternal love, their fake stony faces making their voices indistinct. They are beautifully painted to look dusty and old. Their movements are stiff, and since there's a chase going on they have to freeze whenever anyone dashes throughthe park. It's a moment which would probably not happen in standard musical theater, but since everyone's in drag anyway, what's wrong with doing a number in granite? In fact, because it's so absurd it has a certain, well, realism to it. I hate to admit it, but I was convinced. I mean, who else would know about eternal love? And if you stand around in the park together for so many years, of course you would all sing the same words.

Thekick line was transformed by costumes and wigs. If anything, everyone looked much less graceful and uglier in short skirts. But like the statues singing, the kick line made its own kind of sense. Maybe other musicals just hadn't lost contact with reality completely enough for me. "A Little Knife Music" certainlyhas. It might not be a good idea to go to this. It might make sense to you, too.

The Hasty Pudding Woman of the Year, Meryl Streep, made a brief appearance a week before the ceremony to accept her award, the traditional pudding pot. Confronted by Mae B. Thistyme in full regalia, she remarked, "I hope my son doesn't turn out like this," and in keeping with the scorn and satire that mark most people's dealings with the club's goings on, she said, "It's great to be backin New Haven."

The man of the Year this year is Alan Alda, who reportedly said, "The tradition of men playing women is an excellent one. I would only ask thet you let women return the compliment by playing men." Anyone interested in taking him up on that should see Pamela Hunt. Audition times will be posted.Please bring a moustache.

"A Little Knife Music" plays through March 19 in Cambridge; then in New York at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel March 21-23, and at Hamilton City Hall, Bermuda, March 26-31.[TEXT OMITTED]

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