Little Mary Sunshine, at the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond, is silly, jejune, puerile, even childish. It’s all of these things so successfully that it can be really funny.
This contemporary “loving” parody of old-time operettas isn’t sugary or saccharine, it’s loaded with the equivalent of high fructose corn syrup. The valiant Masquers romp where Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy would fear to tread.
With the invocation of the songbirds of “Indian Love Call,” it’s appropriate to mention the hushed awe of the audience as the curtain opens to reveal a panorama, obviously and well-painted (John Hull’s scenery, lit by Renee Echavez) of the mighty Rocky Mountains. It’s a brilliant background for the noble silhouette of a stoic Indian (not Native American—nor cigar store Indian, quite), Chief Brown Bear (played by D. C. Scarpelli with both sang-froid and feeling), searching for his adopted daughter, Little Mary Sunshine, to inform her “Forest Rangers come!”
They march out in formation, newly arrived on foot from the Mexican border, on their usual jaunt to Canada. But all is not simple bucolia and carefree, if intrepid marching. Capt. “Big” Jim (an heroic, somewhat obtuse Tom Accettola) takes aside Corporal Billy (Coley Grundman, a real trouper in every sense) to tell him they’re on a secret mission of some hazard—the apprehension of renegade Kadota Indians—especially Yellow Feather (played, generically enough, by Mr. Scarpelli), estranged son of Brown Bear and adopted brother to Little Mary Sunshine.
The troupe meets Little Mary herself, and (as played to true, gesticular, attitudinal perfection by Sue Claire Jones) she is everything her name conjures up, a wonder of nature (and dime novels).
It transpires that she and Capt. Jim are long a would-be item. And Corporal Billy is stuck on Mary’s maidservant, Nancy Twinkle (a sly Michelle Pond), though Billy’s downcast at Nancy’s gadabout, man-hungry ways. And the men (Forest Rangers, that is: Douglas Braak, Chris Schwartz, Larry Schrupp and Frederick Lein) are embarked on courtships of Little Mary’s dainty guests, the young ladies from the Eastchester Finishing School (Anne Collins, Heather Morrison, Katie Swango and Linda Woody-Wood), who are visiting the West and wondering just how, well, unlady-like they’re really allowed to be.
The plot doesn’t thicken as much as it congeals, with the introduction of further delightful stock types from the potboilers of yore: Mme. Ernestine, retired Viennese diva with twinkle in eye and voice (played with appropriate gravitas and dumplings by Ann Homrighausen); intrepid Fleet Foot, Indian guide dim of eye and vague of purpose (an unblinking John Wilson) and General Oscar Fairfax, ret. of the Philadelphia Fairfaxes (sic), a proper gent gallivanting in his touring car, wanting nothing more from a young lady (or ladies) than to be her dear Uncle Oscar (owlishly rendered in mock innocence by John Hull).
There are exciting tableaux (as when Yellow Feather creeps through the audience, only to strike a menacing pose as Little Mary swoons into the capacious embrace of Capt. Jim). And tender moments: Mary, spied on by the wily Yellow Feather, scolding her pet cuckoo bird in the wild. And mayhem: Yellow Feather intent on having his way with Little Mary, struggling in locked combat with Capt. Jim or Corporal Billy (disguised as yet another Yellow Feather), at night in the great outdoors, while the rest of the cast drifts nonchalantly and cluelessly by, challenged only by the plot and raging nature, somewhere in the wings. But in the end, as predicted in the prologue, justice triumphs: the land reverts—and reverts—to the true at heart, and even the villains seem without a scratch.
It might be said that the soul of the performance is in its over 20 musical numbers: “Naughty Naughty Nancy,” or (as Brown Bear disdainfully adopts Corporal Billy) “I’m a Heap Big Indian,” the General’s plea “Say ‘Uncle’” or his duet with Mme. Ernestine on lost youth, “Do You Ever Dream of Vienna?” or the endlessly reprised theme of PollyAnna-ish Little Mary, “Look for the Sky of Blue.” It might be said, but really can’t be, as these serviceable tunes merely conjure up, albeit cleverly, a veritable waterfall of disgorged schmaltz.
What it’s really all about is what runs back in East Bay theater to the old Straw Hat Reviews of the late ‘40s—a bunch of game amateurs banding together to put on a show, sending up sacrosanct theatricality with gentle humor, and inviting us to join in the fun. Many in the cast and crew are longtime Masquers, and they put out the juice to entertain us—and obviously themselves in the bargain.
Robert Love, Masquers managing director, Pat King, musical director presiding over his sextet in the pit, and choreographer Kris Bell have put it all together in an evening that’s full of schtick, tongue-in-cheek and a constant lark—or cuckoo.