Musicals Tonight!, after a series of disappointing productions, was back on track, in a big way, with their recent revival of the 1964 Foxy. Based on Ben Jonson's 1607 comedy Volpone, the musical was conceived as a vehicle for the incomparable Bert Lahr, whose Tony-winning performance couldn't even keep the show open longer than nine weeks.
It isn't hard to understand why it failed. Volpone is a dark work that exposes human greed with a sharp, twisted knife. The musical that has been fashioned from Jonson's original comedy isn't nearly as cutting or fresh.
Updated to the Gold Rush Yukon Territory of 1896, the vaguely sinister story loses something at the expense of local color. Nearly every song is melodic but unmemorable, and every character, especially the main role of Foxy, is underwritten, as if waiting for a larger-than-life personality to fill in the gaps the writers left out.
But in the hands of director Thomas Mills, working here at the top of his form, Musicals Tonight!'s concert version shows just how larger-than-life personalities can take mediocre material and spin it into a giddy and wonderful evening's entertainment. As Foxy, Rudy Roberson has the unenviable task of filling snowshoes made for the inimitable Lahr with his own decidedly smaller feet. But as they say about good things coming in small packages, Roberson was a delight and made the role his own. He was matched every step of the way by one of the strongest supporting casts yet assembled for a Musicals Tonight! production. (Kudos to casting director Stephen DeAngelis for another terrific job for this company.) Especially outstanding were Andrew Gitzy, John Flynn, and David Sabella as a trio of swindlers who would do absolutely anything, from disinheriting a son to handing over a virginal bride, in the hopes of being named in Foxy's will. Sabella in particular had moments of sublime lunacy, especially when, in a drunken stupor, he is tricked into measuring the same bag of gold over and over again. It was in scenes like this that the evening benefited from Mills's invention, who used the books-in-hand approach endemic to concerts to superlative advantage with a series of sight gags that actually grew in appeal as the evening progressed.
Performed on the (appropriate) set of another show using the same space, the production had a basic but apt look, with simple rough-hewnish costuming (uncredited) and excellent lighting by Shuhei Seo. Mills's choreography was a bit more adventurous than in recent productions, to this one's advantage, and music director Robert Felstein got superb work from his singers, especially from the big-voiced Jessica Frankel, Rob Lorey and the aforementioned Sabella.
Strangely enough, the last completely satisfying production at Musicals Tonight! was another star vehicle, the delightful By the Beautiful Sea. Perhaps star vehicles, when appropriately cast and tended, are the way to go for this company. At any rate, keep up the good work, guys. When you've got it, you've got it.
(Also featuring Amy Barker, Brian Cooper, Lawrence Cummings, Marvin Einhorn, Natasha Harper, Jason Levinson, Michael Mendiola, Juliette Morgan, George Pellegrino, Marni Raab, Jennifer Scheer, Jay Brian Winnick.)
Writing: Book: 1 Music: 1 Lyrics:2
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita