The Asolo Rep’s Once in a Lifetime. Photo by Daniel Perales.
The era when silent films in Hollywood gave way to the talkies is big news again right now, thanks to the much acclaimed film The Artist. But George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were there first with their comedy Once in a Lifetime, now onstage at the Asolo Rep.
As is often the case, that early status means this piece has been much imitated and borrowed from since it bowed in 1930. And that in turn means that it’s not possible for today’s audiences to see the playwrights’ concoction, with its now stereotypical characters including a tyrannical German director, frog-voiced actresses, neglected writers and hatcheck girls and bellboys aspiring to be stars with quite the same eyes.
But even so, this is a highly entertaining show, one decked out with all the bells and whistles of lavish period costumes (by Alex Jaeger), gilded sets (by Erick Flatmo) and movie clips both vintage and original shown on a screen between scenes, and with a cast that requires not only the entire Asolo Rep ensemble and its guest artists but every one of the third-year FSU/Asolo Conservatory students, too. We’re talking big here.
Once in a Lifetime, directed with obvious insight and affection by Mark Rucker, starts off by introducing us to three vaudevillians—the sweet but clueless George (Jason Bradley, just right), the go-getting May (Hillary Clemens) and the big-man wannabe Jerry(Andrew Carter)—just at the moment when Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer has hit movie theaters. Sensing the change in the wind, the trio heads to Hollywood by train to open an elocution school for all those silent stars who need to start speaking, pronto. (You’ll certainly recall this plot from the big MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain.)
Along the way, they meet up with newspaper columnist Helen Hobart (Kate Hampton in a gloriously over-the-top performance) and a would-be actress with no talent (Ashley Scallon) other than that of instantly attracting George’s love. Through a rapidly unfolding series of circumstances, they all arrive at the Herman Glogauer Studio, headed by Herman himself (David Breitbarth), who needs a big, talking hit desperately—so desperately that George is hired on to produce it despite his lack of experience.
Again, at this point in history you can probably guess every move of the script, but the cast performs with such verve and there’s so much to watch at almost every moment that you certainly won’t be bored by any predictability. Rucker has staged everything with zest, including an irresistible curtain call number that’s the perfect capper to the evening.
Once in a Lifetime runs in rotating rep through Feb. 29; call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.