Are you going to Europe? South America? Do you need to know how to ask "Where is St. Sophia's?" in Italian? How about "Where is Sophia Loren?" Both phrases are translated in the snappy musical travel guide, Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know. No actual travel advice is provided, but annoying natives, exotic diseases, and the glories of cruise-ship food all receive their due. Never mentioned are obnoxious fellow tourists, the challenges of sex in hotel rooms, and the recent Miami Airport smuggling fiasco.
Secrets is a musical for mainstream and mildly xenophobic tastes. Indeed the Actors' Playhouse production is so effervescent and charming that I wish I could overlook some of the material, which is more than a little offensive. For example, it may be best to ignore the title-song lyrics that caution us not to expect "the Siamese are connected at the hip." But sketchy dialogue that refers to an Asian as someone who is "small and yellow" really must go. The show also contains a joke about the growing number of Haitians in Miami, suggesting that a trip to Haiti would be gratuitous. With content like this, should a thinking theatergoer even bother with Secrets? There is one good reason for doing so. While it can't infuse sophistication into a show that doesn't want it, the four-person cast -- Cyrilla Baer, Oscar Cheda, Margery Lowe, and Bill Perlach -- are all appealing troupers with great voices and versatile comic skills.
Inspired by Wendy Perrin's popular Fodor's guide and originally produced by her brother Scott Perrin, Secrets was written by a slew of people, some of whom used to write for The Carol Burnett Show: Douglas Bernstein, Francesca Blumenthal, Michael Brown, Barry Creyton, Lesley Davison, Addy Fieger, Stan Freeman, Dave Frishberg, Murray Grand, Glen Kelly, Jay Leonhart, Denis Markell, and Nick Santa Maria. The production fits neatly into the small 300-seat balcony stage at the Miracle Theatre. The proscenium, which is painted to represent a compass, is flanked by large cutouts representing ocean liners and jet planes, as well as European castle battlements, a Middle Eastern rooftop, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Musical director David Nagy provides piano accompaniment onstage, but his backstage work is evident in the deft and playful musical arrangements. Bass player Horton Nehleber also contributes some nice riffs.
In two acts the revue provides three dozen songs, a parody of Noel Coward's Private Lives, and an effective running gag about a guy who repeatedly contacts a ticket reservation line but never manages to speak with a live person. The score ranges from uproarious to odd, particularly in the case of Glen Kelly's "The French Song," a hilarious addition that really has nothing to do with traveling. (It features a chanteuse who sings what seems to be a torrid love song, while a translator reveals the lyrics are not entirely passionate.) The catchiest number, performed by the versatile Margery Lowe and called "Please Mr. Trailways, Take Me Away," addresses the burning desire of a young woman to leave her small hick town because of, well, another kind of burning desire. Lowe also gets to sing "Hertz," a fiery number about the seductive power of rental cars.
Travel stress is dealt with in a melancholy ballad crooned by Bill Perlach titled "What Did I Forget?" Perlach (who recently appeared in the hit Naked Boys Singing!) again gets to reveal his birthday suit and sweet voice in "Naked in Pittsburgh," a song charting the woes of a traveler whose luggage is lost by the airlines. ("They sent the blue one to Kansas City .") Fellow trouper Oscar Cheda shows off his comic repertoire in "Customs," in which he plays a collector of exotic animals whose safari jacket pockets hide eggs, small chicks, and little snakes. Likewise Cyrilla Baer stylishly portrays several over-the-top characters, including a demure woman who has an affair with a Mexican tour guide and a besequined personification of a volcano.
In these and other sketches, director David Arisco moves the show at an engaging pace, and the production is a smart one, thanks to Mary Lynne Izzo's costumes and Gene Seyffer's snazzy set. Stuart Reiter's lighting and M. Anthony Reimer's sound design add considerable charm. But at two hours Secrets clocks in with more songs and gags about travel than let's just say that, for me, it wore out its welcome. Not that I expect it to flop. The New York production is well into its second year, and the Miami show has been booked at least through January 2. The Miracle's last production, I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, was the longest-running musical in recent South Florida history, proving that there's always an audience for pleasant, middlebrow material. To echo both Noel Coward and the parody called "Private Wives" in the first act of Secrets, it's amazing how potent cheap musicals are.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should report that I wrote several chapters in the upcoming Fodor's guidebook to Miami, so I appreciate how difficult it is to make strange places alluring. (So far none of my suggestions has been set to music.) As one of the sites in South Florida that's most alluring to theatergoers, the Actors' Playhouse certainly knows its subscribers. For the second year in a row, the playhouse collected more Carbonell nominations than any other theater, even though its hit musical was the nearly 30-year-old Jesus Christ Superstar, hardly a show capable of bringing vitality to the South Florida theater scene.
Indeed the remainder of the playhouse season comprises tame audience-pleasers from years past, from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to The Buddy Holly Story and Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors. This last choice was a mid-Nineties hit in London's West End, but none of the three is the sort of work that will attract a new generation of theater fans. (Is it any wonder an innovator like Lily Tomlin couldn't sell sell tickets for more than one performance during a recent Miami visit?) Since the Playhouse already has people coming through the doors, why not show us something with more bite once in a while? And no, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, slated for the end of the season and based on the now passé Ken Kesey novel, does not count.
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