Heritage Square's Music Hall's comic melodramas may not appeal to everyone, but their pleasant buffoonery is a hit with audiences willing to put up with a little foolishness. The goony style of these frolics can't really be confused with acting, but the company has achieved an undeniable polish. And its new production, The Winter Rose, is more polished and pleasant than usual. Playwright and star Frank Oden's original romance is so convoluted and absurd, its hero and heroine so overblown and its villains so nasty that it parodies the Harlequin romance novel to a T.
The story concerns the orphaned Miss Destiny Waits (played with charming naivete by Amie MacKenzie), whose wicked aunt Morag wants her married before her twentieth birthday. Fortunately, the dashing, if middle-aged, Captain Ashleigh Winter (Oden) captures her nineteen-year-old heart. Ashleigh takes her to his family estate to meet his wicked older brother, Craddock (T.J. Mullin makes a cute villain), then marries her on the spot. But once married, Ashleigh is called away to battle and killed. His two young lieutenants then vie for Destiny's hand, while Craddock plots to nab her himself.
Meanwhile, Aunt Morag has designs on Craddock, who winces and shivers every time the old hag enters. And his chief creditor's social-climbing daughter, Hernia, gets her dad to forgive Craddock's debts if he'll marry her. Craddock pledges himself to both Aunt Morag and Hernia but still insists on trying to seduce young Destiny--who runs away into the forest. There she's saved by Ashleigh's look-alike, the Gypsy prince Tomal (also played by Oden), and the passions spark. The comedy of mistaken identity kicks in here, along with the Gypsy King's (Alex Crawford) predictably funny disclosure of the Winter family's real history.
It's all very silly, but there's a lot more discipline here than in previous Music Hall productions. Oden's script is wittier and even a little more worldly wise than past efforts; he makes us laugh at real human foibles--the blindness created by egotism, the peculiar ironies of unrequited lust (which runs rampant through the show and is the occasion for most of the jokes), and the gender-specific power trips that waylay so many of the characters.
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The best news is Oden himself. Tall and good-looking but effectively gangly when he wants to be, Oden has a real talent for portraying unself-conscious characters with big egos but good hearts. This sort of melodrama can easily sink into excess, but Oden allows his feeling for the absurd to conspire with a basically kind approach to human frailty: You laugh at the characters, but you like them, too.
The talented cast members have a self-assuredness and easy rapport with the audience reminiscent of experienced stand-up comics. Annie Dwyer, who plays the hag Morag in the play, comes back for the Music Hall's signature post-play musical revue as a gorgeous trollop looking for treats from Santa (some poor slob in the audience is forced on stage and into this embarrassing role). Maryanne Foerster likewise plays a fright in the play and resurfaces as a vamp in high style for the revue, and Amie MacKenzie completely dumps Destiny's innocent persona for her temptress musical slot. The guys are also talented; one of the best moments in the production comes when they're lined up as back-up singers for a sleazy nightclub act and discover the frightening presence of the audience.
The comedy works here. But when the performance suddenly switches gears at the end of the revue and the cast starts singing serious Christmas carols, everything gets stickily sentimental. After all the bawdy comedy and brash absurdity, the refinement of traditional carols is just plain mortifying. Better for Oden and the Music Hall players to stick with what they know and do best and leave the serious stuff alone.
The Winter Rose, through December 31 at the Heritage Square Music Hall, 18301 West Colfax Avenue, Building D-103, Golden, 279-7800.