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Theatre in Review: Mrs. Smith's Broadway Cat-Tacular (47th Street Theatre)

Brandon Haagenson, David Hanbury, Ken Lear. Photo: Dan Norman.

Like so many theatre people, David Hanbury moonlights. He has a perfectly respectable career as an actor, appearing in Goldoni, Molière, and Shakespeare at the Guthrie, Actors Theatre of Louisville, and Trinity Rep. But then there are those nights at the 47th Street Theatre when he channels the spirit of Mrs. Smith, a nervous breakdown in bugle beads, who has been driven nearly mad by the abandonment of Carlyle, her cat.

A cross between a Judy/Liza/Barbra-style torch singer and your crazy aunt on temporary leave from the Menninger Clinic, Mrs. Smith is certainly an original. She takes the stage with a rendition of "Cabaret" guaranteed to scrape the paint off the ceiling, promising us a "gangbusters, take-no-prisoners cat-tacular." A minute later, she is busily consulting Sylvia Cleo, "pet psychic to the stars," via Skype, and imploring the audience to report any sign of Carlyle. Then she tearfully bares the whole sordid story: How, as a simple farm girl, she parlayed her music act -- costarring Carlyle -- into success on the vaudeville circuit, followed by Broadway stardom. Along the way, egos intervened, and diva and cat fell out; Carlyle took a powder and Mrs. Smith, who has never been the same, has been left to forge on alone -- well, not quite, as she is accompanied by her "Broadway Boys," a pair of determinedly cheerful hoofers who are forced to bear the brunt of her undermining ways. In any case, she works her way through a challenging playlist of showstoppers, offering torrential versions of "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," "The Man That Got Away," and "Swanee," most of them with lyrics retooled to reflect the loss of Carlyle. "I'm so glad my pain is entertainment for you," she says, bitterness seeping through her pasted-on smile.

Entertainment? Well, yes and no. Clearly, Hanbury would like to be the next Charles Busch or Varla Jean Merman, a drag diva with a devoted camp following. And there's no question that the performer has the goods, including a face made of the purest rubber and a show-biz belt that can probably be heard at the corner of 47th Street and First Avenue. And, given the reaction of the audience at the performance I attended, where even the tiniest bit of business was greeted with gales of hysterical laughter and whoops of approval, he may already have the fan base assembled.

But if it is to appeal to a wider audience, Mrs. Smith's mad little soirée needs less of everything. In its current incarnation, the Cat-Tacular is too frantic, too hard-sell. With every number pitched at finale level, accompanied by excessively busy musical staging, and followed by too many would-be hilarious meltdowns, Mrs. Smith is rather exhausting company. This brief 85-minute piece even comes with an intermission, which seems unnecessary until you wonder if Hanbury needs it to fend off nervous collapse. The only element of which there is no surfeit is genuine wit. The nonstop cat jokes become wearisome and, between them, Mrs. Smith often resorts to stating the obvious: for example, eyeing the audience and noting that the show "should be sponsored by Ben-Gay, and not just because I'm singing so much Liza and Judy."

To be sure, there are funny ideas scattered throughout. I liked the opening video credit sequence, which promises "Gowns by Vivienne of Westwood, Furs by Maurice, and Jewelry by Housing Works." Mrs. Smith's first duet with Carlyle, rendered with a series of cat puppets and marionettes, is a nifty piece of staging. And even if it doesn't quite come off, I was amused by Mrs. Smith's bout of hysteria while entertaining, under the toxic influence of Benadryl and grapefruit juice, at "Pat Nixon's birthday brunch." There is stellar support from Brandon Haagenson and Ken Lear, her "Broadway Boys," who get to shine in a thoroughly inappropriate medley that mashes up "Somewhere That's Green," "It's a Hard-Knock Life," "Your Daddy's Son," and "Who Will Buy."

Still, the basic concept of Mrs. Smith, her rising and falling career, and her tormented relationship with Carlyle, aren't yet funny enough; better writing is wanted, along with more focused, less enervating staging. (The director, Andrew Rasmussen, could improve matters enormously by getting Hanbury to take it down a notch or two.) The program mysteriously credits only one designer -- Alexander Fabozzi, whose lighting adds plenty of bump and flash to the numbers -- leaving one to wonder who did the two-portal set and the parade of costumes, each of them bejeweled to within an inch of its existence. The sound design is also surprisingly artificial for this tiny theatre.

Then again, as mentioned above, the audience was filled with young people -- most of them actors and other theatre folk -- who screamed with laughter at every transparently insincere emotion. Whether they are enough to sustain a commercial run remains to be seen. Meanwhile: Have you seen Carlyle? -- David Barbour

(20 July 2015)

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