Village Theatre’s new musical “A Proper Place” — about a butler who takes charge — is smoothly directed and has an appealing cast, but misses a chance to update the 1902 social mores it’s based upon, writes reviewer Dusty Somers.
“A Proper Place,” the latest new musical to receive its world premiere on Village Theatre’s stage, fashions itself as a gently satirical comedy of class, but it’s far more in its element when it’s reinforcing the status quo.
An adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1902 play “The Admirable Crichton,” this stuffed-shirt fantasy features a social order thrown out of whack when a British lord’s seafaring party is shipwrecked, and his resourceful butler begins to assume a de facto leadership role.
To their credit, Leslie Becker and Curtis Rhodes have written a book that’s sturdier than the lord’s yacht, even if it elides a mounting power struggle on the island that could have been its most intriguing section.
‘A Proper Place’
by Leslie Becker and Curtis Rhodes. Through Sunday, April 23, Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah; $35-$70 (425-392-2202 or villagetheatre.org), and April 28-May 21, Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett; $30-$65 (425-257-8600).
As for the musical numbers? Well, they get better as they go along, the sing-songy ditties of the first act giving way to maudlin — but more substantial — ballads in the second. First act finale “The Winds are Changing,” a brooding full-ensemble piece with overlapping vocals, is a lone standout.
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Kevin Vortmann (admirably filling in for the entirety of the run as a last-minute injury replacement) stars as Crichton, a butler who’s perfectly satisfied with his lot in life, managing the estate of Lord Loam (Hugh Hastings). Lest one think “A Proper Place” has any trenchant observations about 20th-century British colonialism and class stratification, the show’s opening underlines how the estate’s servants just love to serve. Isn’t that nice?
The shipwreck on a deserted island strands Crichton with Loam’s daughters Mary, Catherine and Agatha (Chelsea LeValley, Sarah Bordenet and Krista Curry), a priest (David Caldwell), a spunky kitchen maid (Sophia Franzella) and Loam’s sniveling nephew, Ernest (Randy Scholz).
Only Crichton seems to understand the urgency of their situation, while the upper-crusters would very much like their comfortable lifestyle to extend to island living. Scholz, who digs deep to find his character’s many irritants, particularly makes one wish for some “Lord of the Flies”-style bloodletting.
As the years pass, the group fashions a homey bamboo hut (Carey Wong’s set is uncharacteristically underwhelming), makes clothes out of palm fronds and flowers (Melanie Taylor Burgess’ costumes grow increasingly whimsical) and settles into a new social order.
Crichton has much to say about nature defining their newfound roles, but for a scenario built on supposedly natural urges, this is one sexless island. The most convincing fit of yearning is meant to be a throwaway gag when Ernest and the priest sing about Crichton, “If I were a lady, perhaps I’d want him.”
Of course, there is a romance here, but it’s fundamentally mechanical. Crichton possesses no recognizably human qualities, and his eventual attraction to Mary is purely a function of his newfound status.
In perhaps the least romantic declaration of love ever written, Crichton sings, “I am much like a king, yes, and I deserve to be king, and a king wouldn’t fear the love of a woman he knows he deserves.” Ick.
“A Proper Place” may toy with the idea of upending class conventions, but there’s no mistaking its commitment to an outdated conception of women as prizes waiting to be seized.
LeValley and Vortmann are both appealing performers with strong voices, but they can’t salvage any real chemistry out of this scenario. A finale that diverges from the source material in a hastily assembled way reinforces the hollowness of this supposed romantic linchpin.
“A Proper Place” is smoothly directed by Jerry Dixon, and unlike many new musicals, doesn’t arrive at its premiere feeling unfinished in any significant areas. That’s too bad — it’s a musty relic already set in its ways.