NEW YORK (AP) — Going on a public bender doesn't generally end well for single ladies, even in a friendly local watering hole, but Anita Loos wrote a light-hearted comedy on the subject that appears to steer a safe course for her inebriated heroine.
Loos ("Gentlemen Prefer Blondes") wrote "Happy Birthday" as a starring vehicle for her friend, Helen Hayes, and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein produced it on Broadway in 1946, where it ran for nearly a year and a half. The then-new songwriting team also provided an original number, the lilting "I Haven't Got a Worry In The World."
A sprightly revival opened Thursday night off-Broadway, presented by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre at the Beckett Theatre. "Happy Birthday" is a comical, booze-fueled romp, set in a dicey bar in Newark, N.J., in 1946, at a time when many respectable women were still reluctant to go to bars on their own.
The TACT production is a fizzy retro confection, filled with laughs. It's directed by TACT co-artistic-director Scott Alan Evans with careful pacing and consideration for the intentional ironies and fantasy elements. Along with impressionistic frozen tableaus of the large cast, Evans artfully stages intimate moments, such as a charming scene in which two lovers hide underneath a small cocktail table. Eruptions of pink lighting during hallucinations enhance the dreamlike atmosphere on Brett J. Banakis' beautifully detailed set.
Librarian Addie Bemis, played initially with prim, ladylike dourness by Mary Bacon, lives a solitary life under the control of her abusive, alcoholic father. When teetotaler Addie gingerly enters The Jersey Mecca Cocktail Bar, fearful of mingling with "scum" yet determined to meet with her handsome banker, (Todd Gearhart), she barely wants to look around, let alone sit down anywhere.
But encouraged by circumstances, her first Pink Lady cocktail, and a mirthful pair of veteran barflies (imbued with mischief by Darrie Lawrence and Nora Chester), Addie is soon belting out popular tunes at the open mike, cracking wise and knocking back drinks like a sailor.
Bacon gives a solidly appealing performance, becoming increasingly vivacious and warm as Addie deems everyone in the bar to be her new friends, and determines, with intoxicated zeal, to make a play for the man of her dreams. Gearhart is charismatic as gentlemanly bank clerk Paul Bishop, whom Addie secretly adores. Inconveniently, Paul is engaged to shallow, manipulative but lovely Maude (Victoria Mack, archly petulant), who secretly has several irons in the fire.
The entire supporting cast is period-perfect in their roles, including Karen Ziemba as good-hearted bar owner Gail, and James Prendergast as Dad Malone, Addie's kindly tenant who's also the bar's headwaiter. Lesley Shires and Tom Berklund play an attractive young couple who generously allow Addie to join in their tango act. Ron McClary provides a solid presence as bartender Herman, and Margot White is morosely funny as recently dumped birthday girl, Myrtle.
But the real birthday girl is Addie, who finds rebirth and new resolve to take charge of her life during the course of her blithe adventure.
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