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No Fun 

14th Street Theatre mounts an ill-conceived ode to the gay '20s.

Like Carol Burnett on juice, Zac Hudak's Amanda is a high point.
  • Like Carol Burnett on juice, Zac Hudak's Amanda is a high point.

"Kill your babies" -- William Faulkner's emotionally startling advice for storytellers --is intended to warn writers away from falling in love with pet phrases, scenes, or characters. It's so easy to adore the little darlings one creates, but these are often the elements that drag down a potentially successful work.

So it is with Ain't We Got Fun!, a musical reflection on the gay lifestyle in the 1920s that's now in residence at Playhouse Square Center. Writer and director Michael McFaden has come up with a fetching idea, weaving a storyline around vintage, gay-themed songs from pre- and post-Depression-era America. This should be a sprightly romp, but the script and production are as encumbered with ungainly, clattering elements as Fred Sanford's junk truck. As a result, the entire enterprise shudders to an exhausted halt a full two and a half hours after the opening number, making it an hour longer than it should have been.

The central plot involves Oscar and Benny, two gay boys in South Haven, Michigan, who are getting it on under the radar, until Oscar meets a quartet of swishy swells vacationing from Chicago. Soon, cute-as-a-button Oscar is lured away by the siren song of South Lake Shore Drive and the potential of being adored by men in tuxes and spats. He not only leaves behind Benny, who continues slinging phosphates at the local dairy bar, but also ditches Chloe, a smitten girl who has no clue about the love that dare not speak its name.

McFaden has assembled some intriguing songs from the era that initially add a gloss of period verisimilitude to the proceedings. "Masculine Women, Feminine Men" paints the stereotype amusingly, and when Benny and Chloe sing "He's My Secret Passion," the double meaning works beautifully to establish the core conflict. Once in Chi-town, Oscar and his benefactors land at a club where star female impersonator Amanda is bewitching the patrons with her sultry songs and frank patter. Soon, Oscar is recruited into the show as a boy model wearing assless chaps and a come-hither look.

This material could be a fizzy delight, but it's undermined by a series of unfortunate decisions and a profound lack of editing. Given the simple story, there is far too much dialogue, including a dour side trip into the effects of the stock-market crash on these upper-class folks. In addition, a clunky flashback device, featuring aged versions of Oscar and Chloe (rendered well by Neal Alan Oblonsky and Rose A. Leininger), serves to grind everything to a halt. Sure, there are some clever lines, but in this staging these "babies" just get in the way and sap the show's flow and energy. The pace is further mucked up by time-consuming set changes, done in blackout, involving largely unnecessary furniture and such.

The cast is a mixed bag of performers ranging from excellent to barely functional. Zac Hudak attacks the gender-bent role of Amanda with the zeal of Carol Burnett on steroids, preening and cooing to the audience while lording over her sugar daddy and club owner Roscoe. And she has some of the best lines: "I hate pretty. It's a pale impostor of true glamour." As Chloe, sweet-singing Dorothy Savage is a pert vision of innocent warm-heartedness, pursuing Oscar until she realizes his sexual preference, at which point she tries to help Oscar and Benny reunite.

In the linchpin role of Oscar, Chad Moore has a 10,000-watt smile but few other talents in evidence. When he's not grinning, Moore seems unable to conjure any character subtleties or concentration (Note: When in a freeze, it would be a good idea to actually freeze), and his singing is worse. Alex Puette does better as put-upon Benny, but he doesn't craft a character that one really cares about. Mac Michael also is adrift as the supposedly elegant Roscoe, trailing after Amanda like a recalcitrant pull toy instead of pursuing her like an enthralled lover.

While director McFaden gets some small moments right, he misses larger opportunities for fun. The gay foursome from Chicago could be hilarious if they had a more consistent ensemble approach, as when they cheerily shout "Cocktails!" in unison. As for McFaden the playwright, he might reconsider ill-conceived shticks that go nowhere. For instance, the club bouncer Meathook (Ian Atwood) is Amanda's straight brother and infatuated with Chloe. No problem there, until he breaks into a spontaneous number from Gilbert & Sullivan. It's funny because it's so strange, but its irrelevance detracts from the play as a whole.

Finally, the less said about Oscar's fling as a male prostitute and his, um, obviously excited john, the better. Except to note that the perv with the hard-on is clearly more focused than this promising but meandering material.

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