When Malcolm Edwards, the emcee and Mr. Chairman of the British Players Old Time Music Hall, stepped on the stage and asked the packed house, “Are we going to have some fun this afternoon?” he received rousing applause that set the tone for the show.
The Kensington Town Hall is hosting the British Players in their 51st year of creating that most beloved of English institutions: the British Music Hall.
For those too young to have seen the Music Hall in its Edwardian and early 20th century heyday (which by now includes everyone) and those who wish for more than film clips or television adaptations, enjoyable as they are, this real-life stage version of our American equivalent of vaudeville and variety acts, breathes new life into pure entertainment.
The production caters–literally–to funseekers before the show begins. The theater is fitted out with cabaret style tables where barmaids in long skirts of the period, serve the audience drinks, beverages, chips–all gratis. The women demonstrate British wit even off the stage. While clearing empties, one exclaimed, “All those dead soldiers on the table! What has been going on here?”
Describing what happens onstage is having to choose from an embarrassment of riches. The crowd is warmed up with a pre-show and after intermission sing- along (the lyrics are provided in the program, a keeper in its own right) of such perennials as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Glorious Beer,” and “The Lambeth Walk.” Mr. Chairman then regales the audience throughout with Music Hall humor jokes that were aged and hoary–and you wouldn’t have them any other way. The gags stay just this side of raciness and judging from audience approval, the fun is in seeing when or if they will cross.
In Music Hall tradition, many of the songs tempt with the off-color. A man singing about his “Little Ukulele” and a woman describing “Twiddly Bits” (Albert Coia and Ellen Kaplan, respectively) might cause head-scratching, but never offend.
Coia returns to joins Kathy Suydam for an off-beat version of “Indian Love Call,” which makes one forget–or perhaps remember–that songs’ popularity in MGM musicals.
The cast shines and excels too in ensemble numbers, thanks to the Palace Variety Orchestra and Director/Producer Charles and Nicola Hoag. They bridge the gap between American and English tastes with an Act I closer (by the Edwardians and Bow Belles) consisting of Broadway songs from the same Music Hall period–lots of George M. Cohan, which will be heard soon again as the 4th of July approaches.
Getting back to England, however, there is an almost obligatory spoof of “Downton Abbey,” with happily much of that program’s perfervid quality. (And Sarah Leembruggen who plays the Lady so resembles real-life British entertainer Joyce Grenfell that she ought to play her.)
Two people meriting special praise are the British Players Costume Designers Terri Allred and Nicola Hoag. The costumes are eye-poppers: straw boaters, blazers for the men, frills and fripperies for the ladies and sometimes for the gents, too, as cross-dressing was loved in the Music Hall. The clothes also play to everyone’s best points. In “Burlington Bertie,” which no Music Hall could be without, Jamie Sinks sports lovely limbs in tights instead of the usual baggy pants often favored in that number. Daria Antonucci, with a voice that can both handle opera and spoof it, is an Edwardian vision. Daniel Geske sports going-a-courting clothes at comic odds with the diffidence of “I’m Shy, Mary Ellen, I’m Shy.”
As in all good Music Hall, low comedy, love of drinking, and battles between the sexes co-exist with patriotic numbers and salutes to the Empire. The Players recycle their numbers and acts with the years.
There seemed to be a faithful core audience and new converts and those already anticipating the 52nd show in 2016. But don’t miss this 51st Music Hall!
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
The British Players’ 51st Annual Old Time Music Hall plays through June 27, 2015 at The British Players performing at the Kensington Town Hall – 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, MD. For tickets call (240) 447-9863, or order them online.