Robert Schneider in Connecticut
3 May 2023
I write in order to describe taking a trip to theatrical Never-Never land, an enchanted enclave where many of the constraints that normally hinder dramatic representation are magically suspended. I saw a play the likes of which I have not experienced since the age of 12 when my school chums and I improvised a play in Randy Pokinghorn’s back yard for a gaggle of bemused parents. Childhood theatre is special that way; it doesn’t require too much planning, it doesn’t bear too much thought yet when it’s executed with enthusiasm, anything seems possible.
Rachelle Ianniello and Mary Mannix.
Photo courtesy of Milford Arts Center.
The play that brought back these happy memories is lodged at the Milford Arts Center, a converted train station in Milford, Connecticut. The book, lyrics and direction are by Bert Bernardi with music by Justin Rugg. It’s called And Away We Go!
Americans of my generation—the same generation to which much of the audience belonged when I attended— may remember that phrase as the tagline Jackie Gleason used to kick off his televised variety show in the 1960s, the period of the play in question. Gleason was a mega-star of that age, but only Googleable today. The central couple in And Away We Go!, Vince and Vickye, an out-of-work song-and-dance act, have made their way to the Jungle Nook cocktail lounge in Miami Beach hoping to snag an audition with Gleason whose programme tapes in a studio across the street. As the premise for a musical, it’s about average and no doubt superior to whatever we were working on in Randy Pokinghorn’s back yard those many, many years ago. In Never-Never Land, the starting point doesn’t matter much because, as I’ve already mentioned, everything seems possible.
The Jungle Nook is run by mafiosi? Fine! They’re being investigated by the IRS? Yes! An impetuous mafioso mistakes Vickye for an IRS informer and assassinates her? I love it! Vince recruits a new partner in the person of a bashful schoolteacher who’s come to the bar to apply for a job washing dishes? Of course! Three hours later, groomed, rehearsed and garbed in fitted costumes covered with sequins, Vince and the substitute Vickye give a flawless audition for an audience that now includes a higher-ranking mafiosa and an inebriated dancer who’s just been fired from the Gleason show—not for being drunk, but for misplacing a prop? It’s all just fine—and away we go!
So many improbable things happen that it’s no great surprise when the original Vickye emerges from Biscayne Bay draped in seaweed, the victim of an incompetent hitman. Does she want revenge? Does she check into the trauma ward? Does she even call the cops? No, she just wants to be Vince’s partner again.
Before the evening is over, we’ll see characters fall in love, stage their own death, hire entertainers, investigate a murder, propose marriage, give up show business and turn over innumerable new leaves—simply because the playwright wants them to. It suffices that the actor announces to the audience that such a thing is happening and voila! It’s happened. As in Randy Pokinghorn’s back yard causality, credibility and coherence never rear their ugly heads. We didn’t let those troublesome concepts spoil the fun back then, why should Bernardi now?
As I write this, I hear my reader protest that I’m being a spoilsport myself: “It’s a musical—you want realism in a musical?” my reader asks. No, I don’t insist on realism, but even when there’s no gravity, I want to know which way is up. I want a play to make sense in its own terms the way Peter Pan, a highly unrealistic play, still makes sense in its own terms. Creating credible illusions in front of an audience is hard work. I love authors and performers who make it look easy, but I’m too old (and too grumpy) to let them get away with pretending it’s easy.
An example: in Bernardi’s world, plot lines are quickly abandoned but sight gags are forever. In the first act we see four different characters drink directly from a liquor bottle. It’s off-putting that Bernardi finds alcoholism so amusing, but what really hurts is the sameness of the affliction and the cheap theatrical shorthand he uses to make the point. The play isn’t acted; it’s indicated.
By contrast, the musical numbers are well crafted and often sung well, especially by Jimmy Johansmeyer playing Vince and Mary Mannix playing the second Vickye, the one who’s also a schoolteacher, a dishwasher, and a refugee from an abusive maple syrup mill in Vermont. The songs resemble each other, solos and duets in similar tempi and keys. I don’t remember a chorus song and I don’t remember any number that truly advances the story. They’re sonic baubles hung on the barest and raggedest of dramatic trees.
The sparkly costumes were by Jimmy Johansmeyer (who, as I mentioned, also sings well). The set is by Von Del Mar and the lights by Jakob Kelsey. Bernardi and his team clearly love musical theatre. They’re having a fine old time in their fine old train station and, to be fair, their audience doesn’t seem to be suffering either.
At age twelve I would have loved it too.