In the heat of the moment, devoted to the same worthy common goal, men and women working together as a team can accomplish marvelous prodigies — things they never knew they were capable of before. That’s the heart-warming message of Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas, now at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte through tomorrow. Come to think of it, that’s the heart-warming message of 1940s Radio Hour and, more recently, Live from WVL Radio Theatre: It’s a Wonderful Life. This little trilogy could actually be performed in rolling rep on the same stage with the same set, without overburdening righteous Christians with too many messages.
Yes, Chaps! is also set in a radio station, but this one is the BBC during World War 2. Transportation to London is messed up, so Tex Riley and his country western buckaroos have been unavoidably detained. Their Christmas concert, beamed out there to the brave fighting men on the frontlines — and eagerly anticipated by a live studio audience — is in grave jeopardy, especially bad news to Miles, the station manager, who could lose his job over the snafu.
So it’s all hands on deck to impersonate the drawling combo, whether you’re a stuffy alcoholic announcer, a roving fish-and-chips pitchman, a mute sound-effects wiz, the stage-terrified Miles, or just plain old Archie Leach (wink wink). Fortunately, the Riley gang’s tour manager, Mabel, has arrived with scripts and costumes, so there’s a modicum of feasibility to the whole charade.
It sinks quickly into the West. Having traveled to London on a couple of occasions and heard how American accents are painfully mangled when our playwrights are produced on the fabled West End with professional actors, I wondered what was to be expected from BBC amateurs who had never even contemplated the attempt until pushed to the brink. Were our Charlotte actors supposed to imitate laughably failed British attempts at Western cowboy drawls? I hardly dared to question director Patrick Tansor about this seeming labyrinth when I interviewed him for our holiday preview a few weeks ago.
But Joe Klosek, who plays Archie Leach — who masquerades as Tex — spilled the beans after the opening night performance. Strange as it may seem, Tansor had his whole cast devoutly cleaving to British accents on every word they didn’t sing. Once the three musicians (who materialize serendipitously in the Jahnna Beecham-Malcolm Hillgartner book) begin playing, everyone can resume doin’ what comes natur’ly, provided it has a Western twang.
If you sit there wondering whether you’re supposed to be part of the London audience of 1944 — or an invisible spectator who isn’t fooled for a split second — you are taking this silly romp far too seriously. Before long, the shy Mabel will be singing like a bird (Polly, to be precise), stentorian announcer Leslie will be upstaging everyone with his hambone antics, and Miles will have tossed his stagefright to the winds, playing the dummy Aces while Clive, the fish-and-chips man, pinch-hits as Jack Diamond the ventriloquist. Script? All pretense of anybody needing any damn script becomes too cumbersome to sustain. Deal with it.
Now there’s a thin nebulous line between sheer stupidity and adorable silliness that’s hard to define. But last year’s Actor’s Theatre bomb, Every Christmas Story Ever Told, and this year’s delightful Chaps! exemplify the difference better than words. So does the disappearance of that gleaming flop sweat I saw last December on Klosek’s brow.
I actually don’t think Klosek sang as impressively in tick, tick…BOOM! or Five Course Love, his most memorable musical outings till now. Much the same can be said of Beau Stroupe as Clive, though his comedy isn’t quite as rad as his cross-dressing in Hairspray. Ryan Stamey is reliably apoplectic as Miles — and a stitch as Aces — and Lauren Segal is everything you thought she’d be as Mabel/Molly/Polly if you caught her singing “Xanadu” earlier this season. Plus she yodels up a storm.
Kevin Roberge as the half-pompous, half-sloshed Leslie continues to evince the chutzpah to transcend the leading man mantle he’s worn for years at Davidson Community Theatre, and Brett Gentile is no less surprising as Stan the soundman. So often at the bellowing Ralph Kramden end of the Gleason spectrum in past years, Gentile now resurfaces on the Poor Soul side. He’s wonderfully meek and mute, producing an amazing variety of sound effects in his corner of the Chip Decker-designed set. And glory be, he plays a mean pair of spoons.
Hillgartner, in tandem with Chip Duford, is a wonderful arranger. This fine cast locks in beautifully to the harmonies of “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” the echoing atmosphere of “Cool Water,” and the rip-roaring tempo of “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.” No, podner, we ain’t saddled with many Christmas tunes in this here songlist. Kudos to music director Ryan Deal and the boys in the band — who, never you mind what you read in the daily paper, are identified in the playbill.