“Electrifying” and “terrifying” – that’s the way Los Angeles-based actress Tracy Lore describes her feelings about creating a role that’s never been seen in the U.S. before for Music Theatre of Wichita’s “Betty Blue Eyes.”
“Without a sort of blueprint from other productions, there is the tremendous freedom of a blank canvas,” said Lore, last seen here as the boozy, floozy title character of “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2009. This time, she plays the pushy, social-climbing wife of a British foot doctor who resents that she is snubbed by the snobby elite of her village.
“But that blank canvas is both electrifying and terrifying. It’s true that you aren’t laboring in the shadow of someone else’s Tony Award-winning performance,” she said with a laugh. “Now, it’s all on you.”
“Betty Blue Eyes,” getting its American premiere here starting Wednesday, is a British musical that charmed critics and tickled London audiences in 2011 but seemed destined not to make it Across the Pond because its themes were deemed “too British” for American tastes. But MTW’s longtime producing artistic director Wayne Bryan, who fell in love with the quirkiness of the story and the resilience of its underdog characters, offered to give it a whirl.
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“I asked if they wanted to find out how an American audience would react, and said, ‘Where could you ever find a more American audience than in Wichita, Kansas?’ In blessed short order, they approved it,” said Bryan, referring to legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Miserables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats”), composer George Stiles, lyricist Anthony Drewe and the Emmy-winning writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman.
“We are delighted that Wichita audiences are going to get a chance to sample a bit of ‘Betty,’” Stiles said in an e-mail. “‘Betty’ was a joy to write, from losing ourselves in ’40s swing and English patter song to constructing a fully sung farce sequence (about a kidnapped pig being stashed in the home of an unsuspecting 84-year-old woman). Although the story is steeped in the British experience of post-war hardship, food rationing and a bitter winter, we believe the humour and heart transcend national boundaries.”
Stiles and Drewe were particularly amenable to Wichita because the 2001 MTW production of their “Honk!,” a fanciful reimagining of the Ugly Duckling fairy tale, resulted in the show’s official cast album.
This new musical, based on the 1984 Maggie Smith/Michael Palin farce “A Private Affair,” is a rousing caper set in a small British village in 1947. The town elites want to celebrate the upcoming nuptials of then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip with a banquet despite strict governmental post-war meat rationing, so they buy a black-market pig – the titular Betty – and pay a farmer to raise it in secret.
When other townsfolk discover they are being left out, they plot to kidnap Betty for their own purposes in a bit of farcical class warfare that involves slapstick chases, accusations, recriminations, unexpected love, unrequited love and a thoroughly outraged meat inspector determined to arrest everyone in sight.
For MTW’s Bryan, who will personally direct the show, there’s no question that local audiences will “get it.”
“It’s a story about the frustrations and tensions of waiting for an economic recovery with that stiff upper lip of trying to be good Brits, but everybody here can relate to that now,” Bryan said. “And it’s so much richer, wittier and more complex than the movie because it speaks about unfulfilled dreams and rejuvenating a marriage that has gone stale. It will provoke very immediate reactions.”
Two key players at the heart of the story are Gilbert and Joyce Chilvers, a mild-mannered foot doctor and his socially ambitious wife, played by Larry Raben and Tracy Lore.
“Joyce can be quite unsympathetic. She is a piano teacher married to a foot doctor. She is a strong-willed woman who can’t understand why she is looked down upon socially in her village,” said Lore, who besides “The Drowsy Chaperone,” has been in MTW’s “Will Rogers Follies,” “Me and My Girl” and “Footloose.”
“Her main flaw is that she doesn’t always support her husband. But she does have humor. People will come to like her through that humor,” Lore said.
“Gilbert is that classic underdog, the quiet, silent hero of the piece who secretly does a noble thing. As a foot doctor who makes house calls, he has ‘magic fingers’ that help people let go of their wartime stress,” said Raben, who helped kick off this summer’s MTW season as Sir Robin in “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
“He’s definitely henpecked, but blissfully so because he absolutely adores this woman (Joyce). He treats everyone well because he connects with their humanity – well, everyone except his mother-in-law, who lives with them,” said Raben, who is also remembered here for The Producers” and “Curtains.”
“He’s not a saint. He hasn’t quite grown up. He’s blissfully adolescent. But when he is bullied too far (by the village snobs), he gets brilliant and comes into his own,” Raben said of the plot to kidnap Betty the pig.
Playing Gilbert’s eccentric mother-in-law, called Mother Dear, is Broadway veteran Mary Stout, seen here last season as Yente in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Mother Dear is 84 and reverting to her childhood personality because there’s a little dementia going on. She tends to steal things, like food,” said Stout, who has also appeared in Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” and provided vocal work for Disney’s animated “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Aladdin.”
“She is absolutely a broad comic character,” Stout said of the woman who doubts her sanity when the stolen pig keeps appearing and disappearing in her home. “She’s eccentric, but I believe she’s always been eccentric. I think she’s hysterical because she’s so unpredictable.”
Local favorite Monte Riegel Wheeler plays the thunderously officious – and universally disliked – Inspector Wormold, who delights in making confiscated black-market meat inedible by painting it green.
“I don’t think of the inspector as a villain because that is too limiting,” said Wheeler, a mainstay of Cabaret Oldtown, who also played dangerously heroic Sir Lance in “Spamalot” earlier this summer. “He is certainly the primary antagonist. He wanted to be a painter but his vicar father didn’t approve. I can appreciate that because my own father is a minister and I’m a painter, too. He’s frustrated and twisted and hilarious. He’s a little extreme but he’s not evil.”
Other major players include Justin Robertson (“The Music Man,” “Honk!”) as Henry Allardyce, one of the elites who plans to turn Betty into a banquet but then falls hopelessly in love with the critter; Karen Robu as social queen bee Mrs. Allardyce; Timothy Robu as Dr. Swaby, chief organizer of the banquet; and John Boldenow as Farmer Sutcliffe, who has been paid to raise Betty in secret.
Betty, a sweet-faced white Yorkshire with intense blue eyes, will appear on stage through the design of props manager Michelle Bisbee and brought to life by Betty’s “personal assistant” Michael Hartung. The original London Betty was an animatronic puppet (think Disney World’s Hall of Presidents) but director Bryan says the first American Betty will be a simpler creation because “We didn’t have an extra week for tech rehearsal.”
Music director Thomas Douglas will conduct a 10-piece band through numbers ranging from British music hall and English patter song to all-American swing and jitterbug. Husband-and-wife team Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith are choreographing a range from vigorous Lindy Hop to graceful ballroom to fantasy ballet. Period post-war costumes are by Dixon Reynolds, set is by Robert Kovach, lights by David Neville and sound by David Muehl.