Originally Published in The South Florida Blade October 2009
“Flora the Red Menace”, a nearly plotless musical comedy about a communistic cell in New York City’s depression-age design district, opened on Broadway in 1965 much to the dismay of critics and audiences. It did, however, bring a Tony award to 19-year-old Liza Minelli for her debut performance as Flora. The play closed after 87 performances, despite the efforts of an artistic team composed of Broadway legends, George Abbot and Hal Prince. This inaugural work for Kander and Ebb was revived in 1987, to critical success by The Vineyard Theatre, reducing a cast of thirty plus actors to an ensemble of nine and including a reworked book by David Thomson. “It’s A Quiet Thing”, sung several times throughout the play, succeeds in describing Kander and Ebb’s first musical theatre collaboration and its current revival in Broward County’s Rising Action Theatre.
Do not expect the razzle dazzling bells and whistles of Kander and Ebb’s later successes: Cabaret and Chicago (although a sharp ear will hear hints and strains of these). Do expect to see a cleanly-directed, topical and enjoyable evening of musical theatre history. Based on a the novel “Love is Just Around the Corner” by Lester Atwell, the story is about headstrong fashion illustrator Flora Mezaros (Christina Groom), a member of a depression-era bohemian artists’ co-operative, who struggles with her idealist friends to find work in F.D.R.’s struggling economy. In her search she meets Harry, an Armenian unemployed mural painter, who attempts to convert Flora to his Communist ideals.
Seeking to hold down both her job and relationship is Flora’s dilemma as she finds herself torn between two vastly different ideals. The threadbare plot is complicated as she has to choose between them.
Compromising her newly landed dream job in an anti-union company, the threadbare plot is barely complicated as Flora seeks to hold down both her job and relationship. In the end Flora finds herself torn between two vastly different ideals, and has to sacrifice one of them for true happiness.
Director Coughlin borrows heavily upon the Vineyard’s revival with an ensemble of nine actors who play all parts and swiftly perform all set changes in full view of the audience. His seemingly slight-handed direction and choreography allow the piece to flow effortlessly and cleanly from scene to scene with only a few pacing mishaps. Simplicity in lighting and scene design add to the play’s seamlessness although the adjustable and well painted propaganda posters do little to define each scene’s location. The most creative scene depiction takes place in an elevator utilizing only a small bell to indicate it’s locale. Although there is no costume credit listed in the play’s program, the costumes are effective utilizing a color palette inspired by depression-era period pieces complemented economically through the use of the color red.
Flora, authentically played by Christina Groom, succeeds in catching her personality and peculiarities humbly, without stealing the show. Groom knows how to act a musical number, effortlessly bridging the gap between song and text. Her last number takes her a little over the top, but by then, she has won the audience over
Costa’s stammering Armenian Communist love interest often seems rigid and makes you wonder why Flora ever sets her sights on him in the first place. Although physically awkward, he succeeds in eliciting sympathy from the the audience when in the second act he perseveres and overcomes his character’s limitations.
The ensemble is uneven at best. Each ensemble member has several fine moments, while fumbling several others. Highlights include Charlotte’s (Flora’s adversary, also vying for Harry’s hand) flag-raising communistic plea “The Flame” in the first act, but in the second act, she lets her flag slip to half mast. This farcical bedroom scene could have been one of the show’s comic highlights. Kenny and Maggie’s second act opener “Keeping it Hot” pleased the audiences with a delightfully uplifting tap number reminiscent of Fred and Ginger, but actors Hindley and Ellington lost the reigns of their characters as they struggled with physical limitations and dialect issues.
An uneven cast mixed with prerecorded “canned” music, skillfully arranged by David Cohen failed to make Flora rise as high as the character’s ideals. Despite this, it is still worth seeing. It’s a quiet thing, not a bad play.
Flora The Red Menace
Book by David Thomson; music by John Kander; lyrics by Fred Ebb; based on the novel “Love is Just Around the Corner” by Lester Atwell; direction, musical direction and choreography by Kevin Coughlin; additional choreography by Scott Hindley; sets by Doug Hoekzema; lighting by Linda Matrone; sound design by David Hart; properties Angelika Zymelka; produced by David Goldyn; stage manager, Carlos Palacios; At the Rising Action Theatre, 840 East Oakland Park Boulevard, Oakland Park, FL; (954) 561-2225. Through Nov. 22. Running time: xx hours xx minutes.
WITH: Christina Groom (Flora), Chris Costa (Harry), Kitt Marsh (Charlotte), Rick Pena (Willy) Lissen Ellington (Maggie), Scott Hindley (Kenny), Sabrina Lynn Gore (Elsa), Marshall Goldberg ( Mr. Weiss/Galka) and Tom Falborn (Mr. Stanley).