Flora the Explorer Fails to Strike Gold

EJ Dickson, Arts Editor

In some respects, the plot of Flora the Red Menace, a musical by Fred Ebb and alum John Kander, OC ’51, bears striking similarities to that of another work by an Oberlin alum: film wünderkind/Judd Apatow favorite Lena Dunham’s, OC ’08, Tiny Furniture. Both feature female protagonists who have just graduated from Oberlin College, and both works depict the post-grad job search during uncertain economic times. Yet Floraand Tiny Furniture differ in one crucial respect: UnlikeTiny FurnitureFlora does not feature a scene in which the protagonist has unprotected butt sex in a construction site.

Although I shudder to think of the up-tempo musical number that would have followed afterward, the inclusion of this scene in Flora, the Red Menace would have made for a far more entertaining viewing experience than the one I had in Hall Auditorium last weekend. Despite superb direction by Theater Department Chair Matt Wright and the valiant efforts of a gifted cast, a mediocre score and plodding narrative did not make it difficult to understand why the original Broadway production ofFlora flopped after its 1965 opening, running for a meager 87 performances.

Set in Great Depression-era New York City, Flora tells the story of Flora Meszaros (College senior Holland Hamilton), an aspiring artist who falls in love with radical communist Harry (College junior Andrew Gombas) after landing a much-coveted job at an upscale department store. By the end of the play, Flora is forced to make a choice between her new job, her political ideals and her nebbishy love interest, all the while trading banter and time steps with a supporting cast of bohemian artists and wacky communists.

In attempting to balance her work life and her love life with a newfound set of political principles,Flora’s struggle to “have it all” is certainly an age-old conundrum, and Wright did an impeccable job of steeping the action in a specific sense of place, employing cast members to “picket” the production outside Hall and mingle with members of the audience in-character. Although this choice was aligned with the concept behind the production — a Depression-era Federal Theatre Project “show within a show” — I found myself thinking that it would have been a lot more convincing had the picketers looked like they were talking about something other than how smashed they were going to get at the cast party afterwards.

The “show within a show” conceit was implemented to greater effect during Flora’s preshow, which featured the actors warming up on an unfinished stage. While the pre-show appeared to be meticulously choreographed— with College sophomore Philip Wong even hamming it up for the crowd in a slapstick routine — it was unclear how invested the audience was supposed to be in the pantomimed backstage shenanigans, and a few of the older audience members seemed profoundly bewildered when the band eventually segued into the overture.

With the exception of a few brief asides by emcee/cast member College junior Patrick Webster (including directions to the nearest exits, as decreed by “Fire Marshal Krislov”), the “show within a show” concept failed to resurface at any other point throughout the play, prompting one to wonder why librettist Tommy Thompson and songwriters Kander and Ebb added it to their 1987 revision of the original book in the first place. Yet an opening number featuring lilting harmonies and wry, pointed lyrics brought the talents of the ensemble to the forefront with “Unafraid,” a sardonically titled assertion of post-grad optimism by valedictorian Flora (with the irony of the lyrics heightened further by the following number, “Mister, Just Give Me a Job”).

In a role that was originated by then-19-year-old Liza Minnelli (who won a Tony Award for her efforts), Hamilton had some pretty big shoes to fill as the spunky Flora, and she did so with tireless fervor. Though lacking Minnelli’s brazen belt or Kewpie doll countenance, Hamilton imbued the role with an upbeat yet boldly driven energy, following in the tough-talking tradition of ’30s screwball comedy heroine Rosalind Russell. Her rendition of the final number, “Sing Happy,” was particularly stirring, providing what could have otherwise been a lukewarm 11 o’clock number with an air of nuanced cynicism.

As love interest Harry Toukarian, Gombas played the sexiest left-wing Jewish communist nebbish since Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, stuttering and stammering his way through an underwritten role with conviction. His unlikely sex appeal contributed greatly to one of the production’s most successful numbers: the patter song “Sign Here,” which skewers the jump-on-the-bandwagon mentality of faddish political movements. As he pleaded with Flora to join the communists — “if you believe in milk and cookies for the kids” — Gombas leapt and gesticulated with boundless vigor, harnessing his energy later in the play with the quietly rousing political anthem “The Joke.”

A wacky cast of bohemian artists gamely supported the action, providing sparkling moments of levity with snappy one-liners (spouted by a snarky secretary character, played by College junior Hallie Haas) and sprightly, spirited choreography by Holly Handman-Lopez. As aspiring dancers Kenny and Maggie, College first-year Colin Wulff and College sophomore Samantha Bergman recalled the easy and enchanting dynamic of Fred and Ginger with the old-school “Keepin’ It Hot.” Additionally, Conservatory senior Cree Carrico’s pure and lyrical soprano, while beautiful, was incongruous with her character, the seductive villainess Comrade Charlotte; yet she compensated by scaling Mae West-level heights of camp with “Express Yourself.”

Yet the efforts of a sparkling cast and a pitch-perfect costume design by Chris Flaharty could not detract from the fact that the book for Flora is irredeemably weak. Despite a few standout tunes and some pointed attempts at satire, the script plays like a 22-minute sitcom that has been padded with enough extraneous dialogue and fluffy musical numbers to span the length of James Cameron’sTitanic. In musicals, as in any other form of writing, less is often more, and when the line that gets the biggest laughs of the night is “Flora minute there, I thought you weren’t home,” you probably want to consider getting rid of the jokes that make that one seem funny in comparison.

It is not that Flora lacks potential: If it didn’t, Kander and Thompson themselves would presumably not have visited Oberlin to assist with the production. As a commentary on misguided political idealism, the slippery allure of “having it all” and the malaise of recent college graduates, it is certainly thematically relevant; for this soon-to-be graduate, it was at times scarily so. But between the stale jokes, unnecessary musical numbers and tasteless wheelchair choreography (four words I never thought I’d type: “Glee did it better”), it is simply not enough material to fill a three-hour time span. A sleek, energetic cast and splashy, colorful direction cannot disguise Flora from what it really is: a 45-year year-old work that is, like the Federal Works Project theater where it is staged (and like the site of another Obie alum’s documented sexual humiliation), still under construction.