4/1/2022 TULIP DREAMS Serenbe Playhouse
A MOST UNWELCOME RETURN
I know I have publicly stated that I will NOT write about shows I do not like, that I see my role more as a cheerleader than an arbiter of good taste and bad decisions. But sometimes, a production comes along that is as welcome as a lower G.I. malfunction, complete with the smells and sensations of such an affliction, and attention must be paid to those responsible.
Such a production is the first (and probably final) effort by Serenbe Playhouse to recover its clout, its creativity, its popularity. The best that could be said about Tulip Dreams, the Hope-Jones-Wooten jukebox musical about Tiny Tim, is that I will finally NOT be compelled to make that heinously long commute to the forests of Serenbe.
Does the world really need – or even WANT – a musical about Tiny Tim, whose novelty act encompassed only one hit but several albums (and marriages)? Exactly how many songs besides “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” can found to fill out a full evening? The answer is three. Excerpts. But we DO hear “Tiptoe” at least six times – probably more, because I did manage to mercifully doze off midway through the third act.
To counter all the negative social media Serenbe experienced, the producers have chosen to cast with no regard to gender, ethnicity, or age. The only saving grace is that they did chose actors of talent, experience, and skill. Unfortunately, this production was beyond even their considerable skill.
Let’s start with the gimmicky ploy of casting long-time Scrooge Chris Kayser as Tiny Tim (We get it!). Normally, seeing Mr. Kayser in a Weird Al wig singing falsetto would be a guilty pleasure! But did he have to insert “Bah, Humbug” into every scene, every song? And why did no one tell him his five o’clock shadow was so wrong for the scenes of Tiny Tim (aka “Herbert Buckingham Khaury”) as a child with his first ukulele. (Kudos though to my friend Rivka Levin for giving the uke tutor a grandiose over-the-top talent that unfortunately did not pass on to Mr. Kayser’s less-than-adequate ukulele abilities.).
As Tiny Herbert goes through his youth and teenage years, we are treated to the spectacle of Kathleen McManus sporting a broad brogue (Is it Scottish or Irish? Does it matter?) as Mother “Miss Tillie,” (who was, in fact, of Belarusian heritage) and Kayce Grogan-Wallace as Father Butros (here referred to as Butros-Butros for no reason whatsoever). Ms. Grogan-Wallace is, however, the first one to sing “Tiptoe,” and she brings to it her expected break-the-rafters impressive belt voice. Theo Harness, in the only age-gender-ethnicity appropriate casting, is a true delight in a short scene as Butros[-Butros]’s father, a Maronite Priest with a fondness for oddly shaped smokes.
As Tiny Tim’s finds fame on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, the “special casting” begins to work a strangely compelling spell. Ann-Carol Pence and Anthony Rodriguez bring to Rowan and Martin a wry humor (and a compelling interpersonal connection) that I often found lacking in the original Laugh-In, Laura Cole makes Johnny Carson amusing with her constant Shakespearean digressions and full-voiced diction (Kudos also to Heidi Cline McKerley and Arden Adams for their unique sharing of the role of Ed McMahon), and Al Stilo channels Roger Ebert in the scene of Tiny Tim’s first success at Page 3, the Greenwich Village Gay and Lesbian Club of Tiny’s first success.
It's when we get to Tiny Tim’s marriages that the casting really goes off the rails. All three women are played by men in the worst clichéd drag imaginable – dime store wigs, men’s clothes, and stiletto heels. It’s as if Annie Hall decided to audition for Ru Paul.
Jeff McKerley tries to recover his Georgia McBride magic as “Miss Vicki,” but has to rely on his usual “Jeff McKerley” schtick to get a smile (no laugh) from the audience (who, truth to tell, all sat in gob-smacked silence at the horror unfolding before them). Accomplishing the impossible task of being funnier than Mr. McKerley were Daniel Parvis as Miss Jan and Robin Bloodworth as Miss Susan, Tiny Tim’s second and third wives. But then again, their scenes were short and they did NOT have to do that outrageous ballet to “Tiptoe” that Mr. McKerley was tasked to do with BOTH Ed McMahons.
Staged at Serenbe’s Oklahoma barn, there is nary a tulip in sight. Still, a small note of nostalgia is incurred by the Isle of Wight Festival recreation of “There Will Always be an England,” decidedly the best moment in the play, especially since it was one of the few times we heard a song other than “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” (the others being “A Tisket A Tasket” during the Page 3 scene and “On the Good Ship Lollipop” during the Rowan and Martin scene.)
Closing out the play is a syrupy bittersweet deathbed scene, in which Mr. Kayser reprises “Tiptoe” yet one more time, as Robert Wayne (as Tiny Tim biographer Harry Stein) silently takes notes.
So, yes, this play was a disaster from conception to production, the only highlights being the game efforts from the talented cast, and the energetic choreography from Jennifer Smiles that was (often) delightful. I will not talk about the direction and music direction, because, well, they were by people I respect, and I don’t want to hurt them professionally. Needless to say, both Director and Music-Director were part of the cast and should have known better.
Technically, there was no set, and the lights were limited to the setting sun and headlights from a row of pick-up trucks (which dimmed as the evening stretched towards midnight and their batteries slowly drained), so the less said about the tech, the better. There was no live orchestra (how could there be with the MD on stage?) and the tracks were of dubious quality, often staticky and once even skipping like a scratched record.
Is this the worst show I’ve seen at Serenbe? If not, it’s definitely in the bottom five. To make matters worse, my brand-new 2013 Chevy got stuck in the muddy parking space and was scratched by a hit-and-runner.
But I’m not bitter.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #AprilFool)