At last Wednesday's evening performance of The Lovely Liebowitz Sisters: Live from the Krakatoa Lounge, 1945, the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's mostly senior crowd appeared to have a ball.
As their character names would suggest, the show's titular trio - Patty (Suz Adamson), LaVonne (Susan Brodin), and Maxine (Judi Gronseth) - performed classics of the 1940s with Andrews Sisters harmonies while engaging in good-natured repartee. An energetic, malapropism-prone emcee named Yannis (Timothy Shawn) danced, flirted, and told corny jokes. A backup band - Bobby Argyle & His Sox - smoothly accompanied the performers to such standards as "In the Mood," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," and "I'll Be Seeing You."
And all throughout, the audience wound up performing nearly as much as those on stage, and seemed to enjoy doing so; with some prompting, the crowd routinely sang and clapped along; three men were brought on stage for a cheeky "polka competition"; and at one point, there was even a lengthy mambo number, with a good 30 audience members, hands on one another's hips, dancing through the Circa '21 house.
With all this bonhomie, though, I feel compelled to ask: Did the audience not realize that the Liebowitz Sisters show itself is a rather insulting celebration of mediocrity, or did they just not care?
This is not a blight on the production's cast. Adamson is a first-rate, ballsy physical actress; the sweetly lascivious Brodin hits amazing low notes during her wisecracks (Bea Arthur would be proud); and Gronseth - her character voice an uncanny replica of Mira Sorvino's breathy falsetto in Mighty Aphrodite - was focused and spirited. As for Shawn, he performs his enthusiastic dances and obvious gags with such unfettered glee that he's impossible to dislike. (Imagine a combination of Martin Short's Ed Grimley and Billy Crystal's Fernando.) Director Curt Wollan directs the cast gamely and, for the most part, they're polished.
But the way the show is designed, the Lovely Liebowitz Sisters aren't meant to be polished. The characters screw up their choreography and bump into one another and tell rambling stories that don't go anywhere; they have difficulty finding pitch; they position themselves awkwardly; and the character of Maxine, to the annoyance of her siblings, continually flaunts her nonexistent baton-twirling skills.
Yet the Liebowitz Sisters crowd happily laughed at, and cheered for, these characters and their middling talents, and for one disheartening reason: Because they're fat.
You know how I know? Because The Lovely Liebowitz Sisters wouldn't work if the characters weren't fat. If the characters weren't heavy, would any audience put up with their being so inept? The show's comic "inspiration" is that these women are great simply because they're big - big girls, you know, shouldn't be expected to tap, and are silly when they act sexy - and there's an underlying mean-spiritedness here that's difficult to shake off.
The audience is asked to applaud the sisters for a few basic tap steps and being able to stand on one foot, and the show often goes out of its way to make the women look ridiculous; there's an especially unfunny segment devoted to Patty catching her breath following a not-particularly-strenuous routine. Asking performers to play less gifted than they actually are never does much for either an actor or an audience, but having actors play untalented while simultaneously insulting them is low. (Actually, I suppose there is a way this material could work with characters who weren't rotund, as impresario Dan Goggin well knows: Instead of making them fat, make them nuns.)
When the production leaves the gals' girth alone, there are a few terrific bits; an improvisational Q&A session between the sisters and the audience yielded some hilarious moments, and each of them gets to perform a nicely low-key, patriotic ballad near the end of Act II.
However, even the more soulful numbers now have an uncomfortable vibe, as the shout-outs to the "fellas overseas" fighting in World War II can't help but remind the audience of our present "fellas" overseas, and the simplistic "Here's to victory!" sloganeering now feels particularly hollow. This is in no way The Lovely Liebowitz Sisters' fault, but whenever the show referenced the soldiers serving abroad, there was a definite pall in the air that, momentarily, stopped the show short. (These days, we're not feeling so virtuous about our particular overseas conflict.) The time may not be quite right for the blitheness of The Lovely Liebowitz Sisters. But with the number of cracks made at the cast's expense, I, personally, can't see what the best time for The Lovely Liebowitz Sisters would be.
For tickets, call (309) 786-7733 extension 2.