Streets where you live

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 12, 2008

The touring cast is mostly American, but its stars, Lisa O’Hare as Eliza and Christopher Cazenove as Higgins, are from across the Pond (though West End vet Cazenove is touted in the publicity for his 1980s TV turn on Dynasty). O’Hare, who moved into the lead in Mary Poppins in London, would seem to be dogging Julie Andrews’s footsteps, but she resembles Audrey Hepburn in her gamine grit and grace. Her posture is impeccable (even when the witty hat she wears to Ascot makes her look like a thing out of Mummenschanz), and her voice, though not large, is pretty (and mercifully undistorted by the sound system). Cazenove, though more stolid and less dapper than Rex Harrision, certainly echoes the originator of his presumptuous, dyspeptic role — a roaring boy of a bachelor who never gets closer to romantic capitulation than to admit he’s grown accustomed to his feisty protégée’s face. Marni Nixon, who dubbed Hepburn’s songs in the film, is a wry, empathetic Mrs. Higgins. As dense patrician pup Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Justin Bohon sings gloriously, even when clinging to a street lamp. And as that boldly amoral representative of the “undeserving poor,” Alfred P. Doolittle, Tim Jerome is so irrepressible — as is his lower-class posse — that you wonder whether Higgins didn’t have the right idea about what to do for this lot. Arrange for them to get some money, but don’t require that they cultivate the clenched jaw and the stick up the ass.

Christian conservatism gets a pounding in The Missionary Position, a spirited broadside that also takes a poke at mercenary Republicans. In its New England premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (through March 2), Keith Reddin’s political satire is frantic, funny, and more likely to appeal to Blue Staters than to anyone trickling down to Lowell from New Hampshire. Then again, who knows for sure who’s in the audience? It seemed to dawn on the woman behind me, when two characters went down on their knees to pray, that “now they are in the missionary position.” Not to worry: nobody really engages in simulated title sex in this high-energy portrayal of a clash between the spiritual and the heathen on the campaign trail.

Set in hotel rooms across the country as a fictitious presidential race chugs toward a Miami convention, Reddin’s farce is spurred by animosity between the financial director and a Christian consultant working together on the campaign of a conservative senator whose base of support includes “the God squad.” Said force is represented here by the aggressively Christian but indubitably huckster-like Roger, in whose traveling headquarters all of the confidences, confrontations, schemes, and eventual come-uppances unfold. At one point, a bleary Roger remarks that these rooms on the road all look alike — as indeed they do, being in Gianni Downs’s set design the same hotel room, each drolly distinguished by a different clichéd print above the bed.

Roger’s nemesis is Neil, the campaign’s pragmatic “money man,” and his sometime ally is “regional manager” Julie, a high-strung, high-maintenance thing of fluff and steel with blond hair, lots of money, and political aspirations. When she gives Roger the name of a private detective who might help him discredit the godless Neil, backfiring scandal ensues. This is the sort of spare, speedy satire to which MRT artistic director Charles Towers has proved partial, its fourth “character” the rotating maids — a Polish immigrant, a good-natured Arkansan, an unmarried pregnant woman, and a believer in Allah who puts a wrinkle in Roger’s tapestry of our “deeply Christian nation” — played by a single actress who also appears in a brief, somewhat perplexing, G-rated fantasy.

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