SALT LAKE CITY — As a reviewer and theater-goer, when I attend a show, I truly want to be entertained. I want all the performers to be wonderful, and the shows to be entertaining, moving, spectacular, etc. And for the most part, I am generally entertained. You have to go into a show, however, with some expectations about what type of entertainment you’re going to get. You have different expectation from, say, Pioneer Theatre Company or Salt Lake Acting Company than you do from most community theater companies. Off Broadway Theatre falls somewhere in between the two extremes. You know you’re not going to get the glamour and glitz of a Broadway show, but you can expect something well above your church road show.
OBT delivers on that expectation. Their current offering, Kung Fooey: A Chow Mein Western is fun, but is not without its problems. Eric R. Jensen‘s script, based very loosely on the 1970’s TV show Kung Fu, is typical of what you would expect for an old west melodrama. You have the hero, Chain, who has left his life as a Shaolin Monk and come to America. You also have the heroine, Sara Lee, who is set to inherit the family fortune. Of course, there’s the villain, Marvin Mudley, and his henchmen, Dogg and Nadia Demeanor, who set out to steal the fortune and breakup the lovers.
What creates the fun of the show are the situations and the comedy bits that are pulled in to flesh out the framework of the script. References to Mormon culture and jokes about local personalities and politicians went over well with the crowd on opening night. The actors all looked like they were having fun and they certainly acted well and committed to the script. Sandy Hubble Jensen as Sara Lee was exactly what you expect for a melodrama heroine: wide-eyed naiveté with a straight forward honesty guaranteed to get her into trouble. Every time she stepped onstage she was a delight. Clarence Strohn as Marvin Mudley was equally well cast as the villain, complete with bushy, handlebar moustache. He was delightful in a sleazy/smarmy way that made you root for him, even though he’s the bad guy. Sunny Simkins as Katty, the barmaid, had such enthusiasm and a very strong singing voice. The set design by Eric Jensen and Frank Ackerman was fun and worked well to establish the locations in the play and served for one hilarious bit when the villain and hero are racing toward the cave for the final showdown.
All this should add up to a great show, but somehow falls short of expectations. I left the theater feeling like it had just somehow missed its potential. The sound was great during the dialogue scenes with only minor missed words here and there, but nothing that really affected the comedy; however, whenever a song and dance number occurred, most of the lyrics were lost in the music by not having the mix right between the voices and the music. Along with that, the cast seemed to switch on autopilot during the dance sequences, especially for “Kung Fu Fighting,” “Secret Asian Man,” and others. The choreography by Clarissa Armstrong was good, but the cast didn’t seem to really get into it, and it came across as very lackluster. The narrator, played by Patrick Alderman, was good at tying the various scenes together, but the running bit of having him appear in a different costume each time seemed a little forced. I could see the connection between the costume and some bit of dialogue or joke made in the previous scene, but each one seemed to be a different character. For me, it didn’t have the humor that I’m sure was intended. I think director Eric Armstrong did a good job with the script, but some of the running gags and bits needed to be reigned in a bit more. The expectorating scene and the bear-in-the-cave jokes went on too long and quickly lost the intended humor.
In spite of those disappointments, the evening was fun, and the show is enjoyable. But it just doesn’t quite come up to the level I would have expected from the talents involved in the production.