Light lifting

A pair of trifles at Cornerstone Playhouse
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  July 23, 2008

Come summertime, when you’re sunning on the sand all day and evening rolls around, sometimes the theater equivalent of light beach reading is just what you need. Cornerstone Playhouse in Wakefield is offering such fare (through July 27), presenting two lighthearted musicals, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off and Birds of Paradise, alternating in repertory.

Both are convenient to stage, requiring little or nothing in the way of sets, and are directed by Gerald Moshell. The first, which charts the life of an Everyman, has stretches of pantomime, while the second play is nearly as off-handed as a last-minute production in a barn, as it details the trials of a community theater mounting a new play.

Stop the World is the better show and the more polished production. The 1962 Broadway hit had music, lyrics, and book by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. Newley starred as Littlechap, whose self-centered story is traced from the beginning of the end, when he gets his boss’s daughter pregnant and has to marry her, through a selfish career full of apparent success but inner, unreflective emptiness.

Sounds like loads of laughs, right? Actually, irony keeps us amused as we arch eyebrows at his hapless plight. Littlechap wears a street mime’s striped shirt and optimistic determination. Reed keeps up the desperate momentum and, perhaps more impressively, the lower-class English accent. He also keeps him charming, a requirement for this sort of scoundrel antihero, where we sometimes have to root for him despite ourselves.

He’s backed up by a sort of Greek chorus of a half-dozen young women and an announcer (Lauren Matthias). Choreographed by Raja Kelly and Rachel Ladd, they represent everything from bustling pedestrians to clockwork-like factory workers. As Littlechap makes the best of his changing situations, his wife Evie (Ladd) keeps popping out kids and he keeps leaving the country on business. His illicit lovers include the blunt-as-a-Bolshevik Anya (Laura King) in Moscow, the all-but-goose-stepping Ilse (Meredith Thurston) in Germany, and gum-chewing Ginnie (Micah Tougas) in New York. King stands out among these cultural stereotypes, providing a sympathetic personality for the blustering stage Russian.

Anyone who has heard the soundtrack to this musical will probably find a few of the catchier songs familiar. The upbeat “Gonna Build a Mountain,” sung by Littlechap and the ensemble, is a much parodied anthem to ludicrous optimism. “Once In a Lifetime,” which he sings with one of his daughters (Jaclyn Therrien), is a gentle little interlude. “What Kind of Fool Am I?” is the best-known, with good reason, as Littlechap sings the closing song in regret for a life that may have seemed successful from the outside but has felt loveless from within.

There are other songs that make Stop the World a worthwhile experience. “Lumbered,” which is a Britishism for getting suckered, sandbagged, trapped, is our non-hero’s hymn to self-pity, and Reed sells it like he means it. “Mumbo Jumbo” is a finger-snapping demonstration of the nonsense politicians spout, sung as Littlechap successfully runs for Parliament.

If the above sounds like a show that revolves entirely around one person, it does. And Reed — in action just about every moment and singing in a dozen of the 19 numbers — pulls it off quite well.

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