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All About Us by Matthew Murray

  • Shuler Hensley and Yvette Freeman (top) and Hensley and Cady Huffman (bottom) in All About UsTry as we might to kill it, vaudeville is alive and well and living in the musical theatre. Like Americans—indeed, like everyone—it endures precisely because of its ability to overcome, overwhelm, and (when necessary) baffle the naysayers. Sometimes a song, a dance, and a perfectly timed curtain is all you need.

    Sometimes, however, they're the last things you need. This proves to be the case with the Joseph Stein-John Kander-Fred Ebb musical All About Us, which ends its run tonight at the Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut. The gestation of the musical, which has seen three different titles over the past eight years, has in many ways seemed unnecessarily protracted for writers of this caliber, but despite some fine work and good intentions from them and from director Gabriel Barre, this production still seems premature.

    As an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Skin of Our Teeth, All About Us is extremely faithful: Librettist Stein has borrowed much from Wilder, and changed surprisingly little in rethinking for the present day his look at humanity as a play forever in previews. He hasn't had to—the struggles of Man, Woman, Other Woman, and The Children haven't much changed in the 66 years since the play's premiere, and are unlikely to anytime soon.

    As New Jersey natives Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus (Shuler Hensley and Yvette Freeman), their children Henry and Gladys (Carlo Alban and Samantha Futerman), and their tagalong mistress-servant Sabina (Cady Huffman) persevere through the Ice Age, the Great Flood, and the Great War, the story has no trouble retaining its timeless relevance. If many of Wilder's once-revolutionary dramatic devices (actors "dropping character" to speak to the audience or each other, the blurring of boundaries between the stage and the audience) seem commonplace fixtures in musicals now, it's only because Kander and Ebb so refined them in shows like Cabaret and Chicago that we now take them for granted.

    But from Kander and Ebb, who worked to redefine the musical theatre from the 1960s on, the lack of any new innovation in a work that so loudly cries out for it is troubling. Kander and Ebb's painstakingly pleasant work here does not generally deepen your understanding of the show the way their sharper compositions in their more famous shows have. Their show Curtains, which recently opened on Broadway, suffers from this but to a lesser degree; a comic murder mystery can play by a looser set of rules than can a show examining a 6,000-year test of man's survival instincts as viewed through the American theatrical tradition.

    Only once have composer Kander and lyricist Ebb (who died in 2004, just as All About Us was entering its final stages of development) applied their musical-comedy leanings in a way that strengthens, rather than detracts from, Sein's solid and stoic treatment of Wilder. That number, called "Military Man" and placed sometime after the Antrobuses set sail on the Ark but before the United States invaded Iraq, finds sportily dressed soldiers (the costumes are by Ann Hould-Ward) singing an infectious, toe-tapping salute to finding one's purpose in the armed forces. They are, of course, all killed quite violently by encore's end.

    Predictable? Perhaps. But it's a welcome injection of contemporary irony in a show where the score is often as openly anachronistic as the characters and their troubles. The mythic past of Part I is characterized by old-fashioned offerings like the superficially jaunty "Eat the Ice Cream" for the take-it-as-it-comes Sabina and "A Whole Lot of Lovin'!" for a barbershop quartet of Socrates, Plato, Homer, and Moses; the Biblical Part II takes in the cacophony of musical styles of its Atlantic City setting, complete with an airheaded beauty pageant, vamping both sexual (from Sabina) and emotional (from Mrs. Antrobus), and a violent performance-art outburst from Henry; Part III finds little more than the anesthetic anthem "The Skin of Our Teeth" as a reason for an all-consuming war's few survivors to bother carrying on.

    None of this, however, coheres into as consistent a chronicle as Wilder's play does. True, the key unifying element of the theatre does not come through as strongly as it might; Barre's facile staging and the set by James Youmans that all but screams "concept musical" lead the "real world" irruptions so crucial to Wilder's dramatic texture to feel more false than they should here.

    But the ragtag assemblage of performers is perhaps even more damaging. Hensley's disconnected Antrobus is no stalwart Everyman, while Freeman's seems more bristling businesswoman than frustrated hausfrau; Huffman's all semi-sultry Broadway baby (in a wild reduction of her Tony-winning Ulla from The Producers) but doesn't ground the show as the best Sabinas tend to. Alban and Futerman only find their footing as embodiments of menace and peace late in the show, though many ensemble members (especially Frank Vlastnik, whose nimble-tongued singing soldier provides one of the show's few moments of musical excitement, and Eric Michael Gillett and Drew Taylor as a pair of weary woolly mammoths) deliver the goods throughout.

    Eartha Kitt in All About UsThe finest mating of actor and material, however, is Eartha Kitt and her tiny but pivotal role as an Atlantic City fortune teller who prophesies the coming Storm of Storms. She sidles, bumps, and growls through the down-and-dirty "Rain" to give it the showstopping clarity of sound and intent necessary to center the show as merely one slice of an especially epic existence. Those familiar with any portion of Kitt's decades-long career of prowling and purring her way through songs and shows need no explanation of what she does or how she does it; those who have yet to experience her live need only imagine the ultimate eternal sex kitten to envision it.

    Like the Antrobuses and the race they're running (and leading) from creation to grave, Kitt is a theatrical embodiment of perpetual motion that always does and is the right thing merely by showing up. The Skin of Our Teeth, however astute it might assess our nature to seek to destroy ourselves but somehow just scrape by, does not possess comparable gifts on the musical stage. It needs reasons to be and reasons to sing, reasons its estimable authors have not quite found in All About Us.

    Photos by Richard Termine

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