With cheeky aplomb, Tess' Last Night skewers the time-honored conventions of the backstage musical. Set in the insular world of children's theatre, Tess' Last Night may be laced with too many in-jokes to make it as commercially viable as another recent Off-Off-Broadway musical that went on to fame, Tonys, and a long run on Broadway, but it nevertheless has more pointed satire and genuine belly laughs than most shows of this genre. David L. Williams's book is the strongest asset here: delightfully crude, self-deprecatingly hilarious, and always on-target as it lampoons classic backstage clichés with racy, adult humor. (Note: while the show is about children's-theatre performers and productions, it is definitely not for the kiddies.) Unfortunately, Joel Weiss's score does not match the strength of the book: while his lyrics are as witty, as pointed, and as funny as everything else in the show, the music attempts to satirize the twinkling simplicity of most children's musicals with mixed results. While it is right for the subject, it is wrong for the show. The musical references are too arcane to translate into a score with the sophisticated pizzazz that infuses the rest of the show; in addition, too many of Weiss's sparkling lyrics are lost because they are jammed into meters that don't accommodate them.
Williams's direction kept the production whizzing at a (mostly) breathless pace; if at times the show slowed down it was due to the occasional soft spots in the script (the show could use a little trimming here and there). The colorfully apt costumes (Zulema Griffin) and charming, cartoon cutout set pieces (Renee Press) helped establish the zany tone of the show, although the lighting (uncredited) was merely proficient. (There is something about the space at the Mazer Theatre that just sucks up the light: the theatre is the home of the Musicals Tonight! productions, which also suffer from cold, diffuse lighting.)
It would be hard to imagine anyone other than Carrie Libling in the title role of the intrepid Tess. (Indeed, the show was written for her.) With a smile as wide as Canada, she easily conquered every hurdle provided for her character, displaying true star quality as she sang, danced, and acted Tess's way to the top of the children's-theatre world. The other performances in the cast were all good, with Leigh Williams and Robby Sharpe standing out with wry humor.
(Also featuring Brett Colby, Michelle Doucet, Shanara Gabrielle, Ajlan LaRock, Dan Levine, Kasey McNatt, Breanna Pine, Erin Sega, David Shih, Jeremy J. Sullivan, Peter R. Thewes, and Ryan Vaughn.)
Book: 2 Music: 1 Lyrics: 2
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Copyright 2003 Doug DeVita