Regional Reviews: Phoenix
In New York City, socialite sisters Irene and Cornelia Bullock are on the hunt for a "forgotten man" as the last item they need to win a charity scavenger hunt. At the city dump they find a homeless man called Godfrey living in a packing crate. He is at first annoyed by Cornelia's offer of $5 to come with her so she can win the contest, and accidentally pushes her into some bushes which causes her to leave in a huff. But he is taken by the kindness of Irene and offers to go with her. Irene is impressed by Godfrey's soft-spoken sensitivity and hires him as the family's new butler. Over the course of the play, Godfrey's presence causes the eccentric, high-spirited and flighty family to realize their shortcomings and change their behavior for the better while a few secrets of Godfrey's past, including how he came to be homeless, are revealed.
The play focuses on the differences between the wealthy and the poor but also shows how life events can force anyone to become down on their luck or penniless. Since it's a comedy, it doesn't dive too deep into the differences between those living in poverty and high society types, instead making the poor be more of a fascination for the wealthy Bullock family. And while most of the characters are broad caricatures (the empty-headed socialite, the wise-cracking maid) they also have shades of realism which help make the Great Depression themes of the play connect to a 21st century audience.
Director Gary Caswell has assembled a fairly talented cast who deliver appropriately exaggerated performances of these mostly lovable characters. At the center of the action, and holding his feet firmly to the ground as the swirling activity of craziness happens around him, Van Rockwell is expertly even measured, level headed, soft spoken and sharp as Godfrey. He also includes elements of humility, sensitivity, secrecy and eloquence in his performance along with a huge amount of charm. It's easy to see why Irene is smitten with him.
The foursome who make up the Bullock family, Tessa Geelhood and Lauren Scoville as the sisters and Janis Webb and Frank Aaron as the parents, all deliver bright and vibrant portrayals. Geelhood is especially good as the high-spirited and whimsical Irene, while Lauren Scoville is appropriately devilish as the vengeful Cornelia. Webb is a treat as the slightly ditzy matriarch and all three women deliver flamboyant performances that are full of fun quirks. Aaron is especially efficient as the patriarch who is constantly frustrated by the women's spending sprees and his continual business dilemmas.
In smaller parts, Amie Bjorklund is a complete joy as the world-weary, smart-talking, wise-cracking, no-nonsense family maid Molly; Mac Hawbaker adds pops of humor as the always hungry, mooching, hanger-on Carlo; and Eric Bond is both appropriately meek and quiet as Cornelia's devoted boyfriend and a hoot as a loud-mouthed, fast-talking detective who is called to the house.
Caswell's direction elicits fine performances from the cast without them being too broad, goofy, unfocused or over the top. While the majority of the scenes take place in the Bullock living room, there are a few other locations and Caswell wisely stages several of the short scene changes in the front corners of the small stage to briskly move the action along without the set changes in the background taking up too much precious time. This is a comedy, after all, so it is imperative that momentum is not lost.
The Don Bluth space is one of the most intimate venues in town, so Bluth and Cheryl Schaar's set design smartly uses just a few choice high-end pieces of furniture to elicit the expensive furnishings of the Bullock's home. And while they are all rentals, Corinne Hawkins' costumes provide a non-stop parade of smashing period-perfect gowns and tuxes.
While a story from over 80 years ago may seem dated, the characters and elements of My Man Godfrey that focus on income equality and the notion that one's life improves once they've repaid their debts to society are still impactful today. With a fun cast and smart, creative elements, Don Bluth Front Row Theatre's production proves that not only is this story still relevant but it's also still a pretty funny comedy as well.
My Man Godfrey runs at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre in Scottsdale through June 24th, 2017. For more information on this production or to order tickets, go to www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com or call 480-314-0841.
Directed by Gary Caswell