Ain't We Got Fun

By Eric LeRoy Wilson (Historyonics Theatre Company)

Ain't We Got Fun

Missouri History Museum

Historyonics Theatre Company
Continues through Oct. 1.

It's quite a feat for an educational institution to present an original work that leaves the audience with absolutely no additional knowledge or insight about the period in question. Such is the case for Historyonics' well-meaning but ultimately shallow and sprawling revue "about" the Roaring '20s, Ain't We Got Fun. Part of the difficulty comes from Historyonics' mandate about guaranteeing that every word spoken onstage is historically accurate. Are they afraid the history police will rescind their license if they veer from dry documentation to original dramatic prose?

In the case of Ain't We Got Fun, some of the blame must be laid at the desk of playwright Eric LeRoy Wilson, who cannibalized various bons mots of the era's sages -- H.L. Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker -- which are presented without context. We never find out that Mencken's pronouncements emanate from Baltimore -- hardly the red-hot center of urban American life, for example. And the views that make it onstage are repetitive and glib. It's as the '20s amounted to nothing more than a flapper and a college boy swilling bathtub gin in a coupe and talking about Al Capone. There's no mention of the Model T, the first affordable car for the burgeoning middle class, no mention of the Harlem Renaissance or, indeed, African-American influence. Didn't women's suffrage influence the flappers? How was Coolidge different from Harding? How did postwar affluence nudge the middle class upward? You'd never know from this.

In place of real information or drama, director Lee Patton Chiles has the cast retreat to an upstage platform to mime the frantic buying and selling of stocks -- many times. The four Equity actors -- Ted Cancila, Kari Ely, Michael Kaer Miller and Rosemary Watts -- who sing and sort of dance, are clearly doing their damnedest to wring sense from the script (which is still in their hands). There are lots of song snippets (yet no Jerome Kern), accompanied by fleet-fingered musical director Joe Dreyer at the upright. These tunes occasionally dovetail with the text, although they're mostly rendered at a relentlessly staccato tempo. Only Ely's smoky version of Irving Berlin's somberly depressed "What'll I Do" actually creates a mood.

But, but, but, having Watts (who wears a blond wig) play the iconic black- helmeted Louise Brooks as a twitchy vamp? Or Ely portraying Parker as a brassy temptress? Contemporary accounts describe Mrs. Parker as recessive and acidic. Poor Ely has the most egregiously disrespectful moment of the evening when, as Mrs. Parker, she bowdlerizes the lush Rodgers and Hart ballad "Thou Swell" as "I'm Swell." Ain't no fun, at all.

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