The kettle had had the last of its solo performance. It persevered with undiminished ardour; but the Cricket took first fiddle and kept it. Good Heaven, how it chirped! Its shrill, sharp, piercing voice resounded through the house, and seemed to twinkle in the outer darkness like a star. There was an indescribable little trill and tremble in it, at its loudest, which suggested its being carried off its legs, and made to leap again, by its own intense enthusiasm."-- Charles Dickens, The Cricket on the Hearth
Heritage Square Music Hall's version of The Cricket on the Hearth may be based on the Charles Dickens story, but it's been adapted and re-adapted almost beyond recognition -- even if the actors frequently seem about to be carried off their legs by their own enthusiasm. The basic story concerns a kindly couple and their baby; a young woman who's to be married off to a rich villain; her former lover, believed dead at sea; and -- of course, this being Dickens -- an innocent blind girl living in abject poverty with an old father who tells her kindly lies to conceal the extent of their destitution. But the story's just the framework for hamming, mugging, singing, improvisation, banter with the audience and inventive bits. Although some of those bits are clever and some aren't, ultimately it doesn't matter, because the whole evening is carried off with such high good humor.
Not only are many of the cast members very good actors, but they have an easiness on stage that comes from long experience, sheer pleasure in what they're doing and the realization that the production's format allows them to get away with just about anything. T.J. Mullin has a grand time as the villainous Mr. Tackelton, and you can tell how much he enjoys being on stage with Bryan A. Foster, who plays both the stooped father of blind Bertha and Mrs. Fielding, the lachrymose, overstuffed mother of poor sacrificial May. These two are veterans of this theater, and when they're together, there's no knowing what will happen. Alex Crawford is a playful, teasing Cricket, Rory Pierce a strong John Peerybingle, and Annie Dwyer a sympathetic Dot. Amie Rau gives blind, round-eyed little Bertha a genuine sweetness amid the shenanigans of the rest of the cast.
This kind of overacting could be a real turnoff except for the fact that, paradoxically, the cast keeps everything real, and its relationship with the audience is strong. (So strong, in fact, that should you happen to catch a cast member's eye, you may never be able to shake off his or her attention.) None of the performances have that practiced, off-putting edge, the enameled, too-smiley, jiggling quality you find in a lot of musicals. The actors feel like regular down-home folks who just happen to be fun to watch. Even the bios in the program are appealing and lack the usual anodyne valentines to spouses or self-congratulatory references to God. They feel individual. Annie Dwyer's is touching and unexpectedly serious: She says she heard crickets chirping on the day her father entered the hospital. "Now, every time I hear a cricket, I think of my Daddy," she says. "Don't you worry, Daddy, as always, I'll be singing for you."
The audience is pleasant, too. They're not adorned in furs and furbelows like the people attending big-city musicals; they're not the staid, conservative, older crowd you associate with dinner theaters. They're just people: kids, adults, businessmen and -women, teenagers, youngsters who look as if they've just come off the slopes, mountain-town folk, grandmothers cheerily swaying and clapping.
Cricket comes to a high-spirited conclusion, but the night is far from over. The second half of the program is a musical revue. A thin plotline about high school kids putting on a talent show is the thread holding the songs -- all '60s hits -- together. Mullin is a convincing high-schooler. In the role of a sullen, gum-chewing girl who berates the guy she likes for coming with someone else, Dwyer reveals herself to be an inspired physical comedienne. As the cast members swing into one number after another -- nodding their moptops as the Beatles for "Twist and Shout" (Alex Crawford, playing the drums, not only gets to don a large, Ringo-style nose, but also to utter the one-liner "I used to be a Cricket"), crooning a smooth Four-Tops-style "Baby I Need Your Loving," tossing off a killer "Pretty Woman" -- you realize how multi-talented they are. You get great voices, nice guitar picking, terrific piano from Randy Johnson, and mind-bogglingly slick, synchronous moves from everyone.
Add to all of this a decent pre-show dinner with lots of choices and funny, attentive waitpeople, and you're getting a lot for your money.
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