Little Mary Sunshine pokes merciless fun at those Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie operettas of the 1930s. Happily, the new Rover Dramawerks production of this show recognizes that the key to successful parody is performance quality. While the acting may be intentionally over-the-top, the singing is first-rate.
Elizabeth Saxe is a winsome delight as the title character, the sunbeamy young proprietress of the Colorado Inn during some undefined era of the early 20th century. Mary is the adopted daughter of the local Indian chief (an importrant plot element) and the incipient sweetheart of the forest ranger commander, Captain Jim.
Blake Rodgers brings a robust baritone, Dudley Doright demeanor and linebacker bulk to the latter role. He and Saxe invite comparison to Eddy and MacDonald on "Colorado Love Call." Meanwhile, Saxe is forever vocally poised and powerful and in complete control in the higher registers.
Mary Tiner delivers broad comedy and a healthy mezzo as a retired opera singer lodging at the inn. Her fractured German novelty song is amusing, but Tiner's best moments come with Michael McNiel on the sweetly sentimental "Do You Ever Dream of Vienna?"
Also on the guest roster is a half-dozen finishing school students, proper young ladies a la the "little maids from school" of Gilbert & Sullivan. Director Sue Birch (on loan from Theatre Britain) and the Rover producers took laudable care in casting here. Each actress is a distinctive type: from the droll and willowy Kelsey Kruse to the shy and bespectacled Jennifer Middleton Taylor (a protégé of Broadway's Betty Buckley). These girls never miss a note, a beat or a dance step. (And choreographer Larry M. Jansson cuts them scant slack.) This is ensemble playing at its finest.
Chester Maple is, on the one hand, terrific as the gee-whiz corporal who bosses the ranger troop when Rodgers is off on a secret mission and romances the hotel maid (Caitlin Mills, in a delightful turn). Sadly, Maple is a major part of the "problem"' with this show.
Writer/composer Ray Besoyan created Little Mary Sunshine just over a half-century ago, before it became unfashionable to portray Native Americans as demeaning caricatures. Little Mary is full of that kind of junk, and some of it actually works. Ben Westfried, as Chief Brown Bear, channels his recent portrayal of the embattled Jewish patriarch in God's Favorite. Okay, that's funny. And a legendary Indian scout named Fleet Foot (Donald Cook) turns out to be slow of foot and near-sighted. Also funny. Over-written and over-played, but funny.
But when Maple's character dons Indian attire and becomes one of the tribe, we're forced to endure a number titled "Heap Big Injun." Maple hurls himself headlong into this monument to political incorrectness. And from the standpoint of sheer acting prowess, it's impressive. But, ultimately, it's embarrassing to watch.
(This number is much like "I'm An Indian, Too," which was cut from a national touring production of Annie Get Your Gun a dozen or so years ago.)
Costume designer Jesse Thaxton puts the forest rangers in Mountie-esque red uniforms, while Mary and the finishing school girls wear 1920s-looking dresses. In the clever "Mata Hari" number the female ensemble members switch to semi-sexy, bloomer-like jammies. Curiously, title rolist Saxe wears the same wretched floral print dress for the entire show.