Neanderthal Disco Party

The Great American Playhouse's fourth show has some troubles, but manages to be fun for the whole family

Up in Oro Valley, the Great American Playhouse is making progress establishing itself as the place to go for lighthearted entertainment. Its goal is to feature good-natured scripts in the broad style of melodrama, complete with absurd plots that lean heavily on puns and anachronistic references, as well as energetic renditions of songs (also usually anachronistic) interspersed within the tale.

The playhouse has just opened its fourth show, The Quest of the Caveman, written and directed by Sean MacArthur. It's a rather ridiculous (which is good) and sometimes confusing (which is not so good) tale that has a couple of cave clans battling for superiority. Or reunion. Or both, maybe.

The show opens with an almost decipherable prologue, a short scene that has to do with some cave creature stealing another's fire, I think. But all it really seemed to do was scare the bejeebers out of a small child in the audience, who had to be hurried out of the theater to prevent further emotional scarring.

Anyway, the Ashers, led by wise prognosticator Rube (Nick Seivert), include Nola (Jacinda Rose Swineheart), Bobo (Colleen Zanderbergen, sporting a lovely unibrow) and Stinka (Amy DeHaven). They have banished Ug (MacArthur) and his wife Li (Jodi Darling), along with their son, Oog (Randy MacDonald), to another part of the valley. Oog thinks it's a shame the two groups are at odds and persuades his folks to attempt to make peace with the others. There's a lot of searching and running into mastodons and other creatures, and pretty much nonsensical but sort of funny chaos until the whole thing is sorted out, led by the powerful Nola, and a community of peace is born.

Throughout the action, the characters break into song and it's here that the production is at its most entertaining. The sight of cave people belting out Donna Summers, the Village People and Thelma Houston in choreographed enthusiasm is definitely smile-provoking and laughter-inducing. The cast is a solid group of comedy and musical pros who can sell just about anything, no matter what their attire.

But there is a definite weakness with the script. For one thing, the story is much too convoluted. It lacks a simplicity that this sort of theater needs. Scenes are too long. The purpose of some of the characters is not really clear. It's not even obvious what exactly is at stake, or who the bad guys are, or why we should care, which even in this style of theater is needed, at least in a most basic way. The script needs much more focus and probably some ruthless pruning. If it doesn't advance the plot or deliver a huge punch of humor, let it go.

For instance, the appearance of the mastodon consists of just the trunk and horn appearing, while the rest of the body, it is suggested, is still offstage. It's not that funny an effect and without a rich payoff, it just doesn't get the bang for the buck intended. A similar situation occurs quite late in the story with the appearance of a dinosaur. It's marginally funny but doesn't really add anything to the story.

Although we don't go to such theaters with the expectation of seeing great literature, there are definitely skills required to make a work in such a genre effective. Based on the shows I've seen so far, there's still work to be done on this front.

Still, there are ample funny moments, and the performances of those songs are really first rate. Swineheart's "Proud Mary" is wonderful—in fact, I think just about everything I've seen her do anywhere has been wonderful. All of the players are gifted vocally, and they sing the heck out of everything and bust some moves as well. And MacArthur gets props for choosing to have the cave world united because of the efforts of a strong woman.

These delightful talents are particularly on display in the musical revue after the main show. The Tribute to Irving Berlin: No Business Like Show Business showcases several of our favorite Berlin tunes, including "This is the Army," the title song to the World War II morale-boosting show that was eventually made into a movie starring Ronald Reagan; "Puttin' on the Ritz"; and, of course, "God Bless America." Swineheart and DeHaven do a very funny "Sisters" from White Christmas. Pianist Mike R. Padilla plays and sings "I Love the Piano," and we are certainly convinced he does.

Padilla is also the musical director for the evening's entertainment and he produces some mighty fine work. He isn't credited with the arrangements of all those entertaining songs throughout the evening, but it's my guess that they are his efforts. Not only does he see to it that all those tunes are winningly delivered, but his piano also underscores the entirety of MacArthur's script, giving us hints about how we should be feeling about the character or the scene. His efforts are a huge part of what makes the evening entertaining.

Although the script is a bit rickety, the cast gets behind it with gusto, and the acting and musical skills give us a solid evening of entertainment. Food and drinks are available, and a bottomless popcorn basket adorns every table. The show should appeal to the whole family—except, perhaps, for that youngster who was probably too young to appreciate cavemen and cavewomen anyway.

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