Ever wonder why you don’t see professional productions of such marvelous old-time hits as the 1928 drama/comedy of a night in the press room of a Chicago courthouse, "The Front Page?" Simple. The script by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur calls for a huge cast by today’s standards.
Who can afford to pay 22 performers at today’s rates? Not professional theaters, that’s for sure. Ah, but community theaters such as the Port City Playhouse can field such a small army because their performers are all volunteers. Still, it takes considerable resources to make a complicated show of this type work and director Roland Branford Gomez gives the project a sense of heft, if not a consistent sense of style.
The action takes place on a single set (that helps with the budget). It is the pressroom of the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago on a late spring evening as a gaggle of reporters wile away the hours awaiting an execution scheduled for the next dawn. How much is a gaggle? In this case, it is over half a dozen and the playwrights have given each a distinctive personality so it would be difficult to get away with fewer just to save money.
They play cards, they trade stories while one plunks away on a banjo and another tries to get some work done at his roll-top desk (the desk plays an important part in the plot after intermission). Various strange characters wander in and out, especially when things get frantic after the escape of the condemned man.
With 22 characters and only two hours of stage time in its three acts, the play doesn’t give very many performers too much time alone in a spotlight. Instead, the show relies on rapid-fire dialogue, often with multiple characters talking at the same time. This kind of show requires a polished, well-practiced pace and here is where this production fails to live up to its potential. The confusion is not as disciplined as the script’s authors obviously intended.
With many people talking over each other’s lines, it is important that the lines that are most important to the plot or to the definition of a particular character’s purpose in a scene are the ones that rise above the din so the audience can follow what is going on. Too often in this production, however, it is the throwaway lines that obscure plot points. As a result, the audience spends a lot of time trying to figure out what is going on rather than sitting back and enjoying the action.
While it is essentially an ensemble show, there is a principal character that constitutes a starring role. Reporter Hildy Johnson is anxious to get the evening over since he’s about to leave on his honeymoon with his pretty bride played by Elizabeth Heir. Mark Lee Adams handles that role with a glint in his eye, a spring in his step and an energy not always matched by the rest of the cast.
In any theater company, it would be difficult to assemble an "all-star cast" when the cast has to approach the two dozen mark. In community theater that is even more difficult, but Gomez and the Port City Playhouse have the reputation for solid productions that draws some of the better community theater actors and actresses to their shows. As a result, this production benefits from the likes of Bonnie Jourdan as Hildy’s potential mother-in-law, Jerry Morse as the sheriff who’s career is in danger due to the escape of his prisoner, Ron Field as the Mayor who’s concern over reelection outweighs any sense of duty, Ron Sturman as the clerk trying against considerable odds to deliver a reprieve from the Governor and Cary Cramer as the escapee.
Late in the action, James McDaniel joins the group as Hildy’s editor out to make a name for his newspaper by scooping everyone else and manipulating events to make an even more dramatic story. His arrival sparks the production to a higher energy level.
Another source of pleasure is the music played before the show begins, during intermission and as the audience files out. It sounds very much as if it might be vintage 1920s jazz recordings cleaned up through the magic of modern digital technology. In fact, it is all original music composed by Joseph Colombo.
But it is the gaggle of reporters that are the heart of the piece, most notably Will Monahan as a crotchety veteran, Jim Day as a hardened beat reporter, Brian Clark as a sharp-tongued scribe, Ted Culler as the persnickety owner of the roll-top desks and Cal Whitehurst as the musically inclined reporter. Their banter may well become better paced as they perform the show more times. It runs through March 28 at the Lee Center.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.