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The Last Night of Ballyhoo

Variety Review of the 2003 South Coast Repertory play

The Last Night of Ballyhoo

(South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage; 507 seats; $55.00 top)

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Warren Shook.

Lala - Blair Sams
Reba - Linda Gehringer
Boo - Kandis Chappell
Adolph - Richard Doyle
Joe - Nathan Baesel
Sunny - Debra Funkhouser
Peachy - Guilford Adams

By JOEL HIRSCHHORN

"You smell like a rose, I smell like a salami sandwich," comments the overtly Jewish Joe (Nathan Baesel), a young man eager to date a girl whose rich Southern family fights to distance themselves from their Jewish background and culture. This theme of internal anti-Semitism -- notably touched upon in 1947's "Gentleman's Agreement" -- is examined fully in Alfred Uhry's 1997 Tony winner. Populated with delightful characters, brimming with witty lines, "Ballyhoo" downplays darker elements (Hitler rates only a casual mention). Even though Uhry's script forges plotlines in feel-good ways and opts for easy solutions, his play remains tremendously entertaining on its own, romanticized terms.
Set in 1939 Atlanta, where the world premiere of "Gone With the Wind" is stirring excitement, "Ballyhoo" presents a family that has rejected any obvious Jewishness, decorating their Christmas tree and speculating, "Christmas is just another American holiday -- if you leave out all that silly stuff about Jesus being born." Matriarch Boo (Kandis Chappell) has one burning goal: to find a man who will escort her unpopular daughter Lala (Blair Sams) to the big yearly BallyhooBallyhoo ball, an event described as "a lot of Jews dancing around and wishing they could be Episcopalians."

Lala suffers the disadvantage of competing with her golden-haired cousin Sunny (Debra Funkhouser), a delicate beauty so far removed from her roots that she pronounces "Shabbat shalom" as "shibbit shilim." Also in the house (stylishly designed by Michael Olich in opulent Spanish Renaissance), are Reba (Linda Gehringer), Sunny's supportive mother, and Uncle Adolph (Richard Doyle), a symbol of sanity surrounded by high-strung women.

Illusions and family stability unravel with the appearance of Joe (Baesel), Adolph's handsome young employee who takes an immediate interest in Sunny and invites her to Ballyhoo. Joe's Jewishness is right out front, and such denigrating remarks as "kike" and "aggressive" are flung around by the bigoted Boo and jealous Lala.

These overreactions are puzzling to witness, since Joe is nearly as non-denominational as Sunny. Baesel, an excellent actor with humor and magnetism, makes the love story appealing, but we're always aware that director Warren Shook has watered down Joe's ethnicity, reducing the sting of the confrontations.

As the desperate Lala, Blair Sams tackles a character that offers myriad opportunities for caricature and resists them all in a shaded, poignant portrayal. Gehringer is warmly nurturing as Aunt Reba, a touching contrast to Chappell's powerfully conveyed anxiety and bitterness. Richard Doyle makes his part subtly unforgettable, particularly in a sequence in which he recalls his lost love, a stranger on a streetcar he never had the courage to approach. Guilford Adams, with devilish grin and blazing red hair, is gloriously goofy as Lala's snobbish suitor.

Director Shook reaches a dramatic peak staging an angry collision between plain Lala and exquisite Sunny, when Lala accuses Sunny of showing up at her father's funeral so beautifully dressed that she stole the show from her and from the corpse. A priceless visual touch by designer Frances Kenny, underlining the family's obsession with image and pretension, features Lala on the staircase in "Gone with the Wind" gown -- a sight that deservedly provokes Adolph's astounded cry, "Well, well, well, Scarlett O'Goldberg!"

Sets, Michael Olich; lighting, Tom Ruzika; costumes, Frances Kenny; sound, Michael Roth; stage manager, Scott Harrison. Opened, Sept. 5, 2003; reviewed Sept. 6. Runs through Oct. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

©2007 Guilford Adams. All rights reserved.