Music Theatre of Wichita went whole hog for the American premiere of “Betty Blue Eyes,” a rollicking new British musical about rekindling the spark in a waning marriage, letting some underdogs have their well-deserved day and introducing us to the lovable porker whose blue-eyed presence makes it all possible.
It’s a witty, silly, laugh-out-loud farce from Emmy-winning American writers Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman with just enough British stiff upper lip to give it a dignified charm (despite some hilariously earthy pig noises) and some unexpected poignancy to give it depth and heart.
And it all charges along on a rousing score by “Honk!” creators George Stiles and Anthony Drewe that ranges from Broadway bravura to British patter song to heartfelt ballad with a big, close-harmony choral production number seeming to lurk around every corner just waiting for any excuse to pop out.
MTW’s Wayne Bryan, who directed, masterminds a deceptively complex show that involves dozens of disparate elements moving all at once, from singers and dancers parading across the stage to uncountable bits of scenery (designed for maximum versatility by Robert A. Kovach) rolling and flying in from the wings (mostly silently, thank goodness) and turning around to create various scenes from a quaint, stone-walled village street to the inside of a two-story cottage to a glittering jitterbug ballroom.
Opening night, the adrenalin was pumping so hard and the enthusiasm was running so high that the cast seemed borderline manic, with every song just a little louder and more rousing than expected, every dance movement a little more over the top, and some comic performances broad enough to land a B-52 on (well, it is set in post-war 1947 Britain). You could be forgiven for worrying that it all might implode at some point.
But it ended up working beautifully because the players never ran out of steam. It’s a colorful, consistent, fast-paced romp, and we Wichitans are lucky, maybe even a bit privileged, to get first crack at it before anyone else in the country (take that, San Francisco, Dallas and Chicago).
The story, based on a 1984 Maggie Smith/Michael Palin movie called “A Private Function,” deals with the snobby elite of a small British village planning to celebrate the marriage of then-Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip with a pork feast despite severe post-war food-rationing that makes meat almost impossible to get. Their plan is to buy a pig on the black market, thwarting government “Fair Share For All” policy.
When the villagers not invited to the feast – led by a mild-mannered foot doctor and his socially ambitious wife – find out what the privileged few are up to, they kidnap the pig (the titular Betty) for some delicious – literally, but not what you think – revenge.
Bryan’s casting is inspired, beginning with Tracy Lore and Larry Raben as Joyce and Gilbert Chilvers, the ringleaders of the pig-napping scheme, whose stale marriage needs just such a jolt of dangerous excitement to rediscover the emotional spark that brought them together originally.
Lore, familiar here as the boozy title character in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” is a strong and controlled comic presence with a rich, lusty voice who belts out her daydream fantasy anthem, “Nobody (Calls Me Nobody),” with show-stopping, Ethel Merman-type impact. She goes from dowdy piano teacher to glamorous siren surrounded by tuxedoed chorus boys in a bit of delightful stage magic.
Raben, seen earlier this year as Sir Robin in “Spamalot” but best remembered as the naive wannabe in “The Producers,” plays Gilbert with a gentle, accommodating sweetness, serenaded in an early highlight number by his lonely, war-weary female patients with “He Has Magic Fingers.” But Raben has a sly charm and a devilish glint waiting to spring forth when bullied too far (“Another Little Victory”). His wistful assessment of “The Kind of Man I Am” is a heart-touching oasis in all the craziness.
Broadway veteran Mary Stout (“Fiddler on the Roof”) is a shameless and hilarious scene-stealer as Joyce’s doddering, 84-year-old Mother Dear, who misinterprets preparations to slaughter the pig for the banquet as a murder plot against her. Stout’s mugging and double-takes provoke the longest laughs of the show.
Also hilarious is local favorite Monte Riegel Wheeler (“Spamalot”) as the sneeringly officious meat Inspector Wormold, who is determined to take illegal meat literally out of the mouths of hungry people for the principle of it. Wheeler gives the inspector an arch, Boris-and-Natasha comic book feel that makes him delightfully despicable rather than actually menacing. And Wheeler’s booming baritone delivers a rich reading to “Painting By Heart,” his lost daydream of being a painter rather than a government drone.
Timothy Robu, Robert Ariza and Justin Robertson are supremely tuneful in a barber shop quartet (trio?) way as the village elites planning the banquet (“A Private Function”). And Robertson gets a charmingly silly showcase when he falls in love with the pig and croons to her (“Betty Blue Eyes”), declaring “I’ll never have eyes for any other sow.”
Betty herself is essentially a big puppet designed by Ethan Hartman and Michelle Bisbee and given life by Michael Hartung. While she’s cute, sadly, Miss Piggy she’s not. Her face is frozen in a half-smile that doesn’t change, blunting her personality.
The inventive choreography by husband/wife team Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith is a spectacular melange of movement, from vigorous flip-your-partner jitterbug to “A Chorus Line” high-stepping to even a gossipy gathering of village women that looks like chickens hilariously strutting in a pen.