The glitzy Kaufman and Hart comedy "Once in a Lifetime" is back on the Shaw's Festival's main stage this season, following the success of its abbreviated August to October run last season.
For 1989 it will run the other half of the season. It opened Friday and will continue in repertory through July 23.
"Once in a Lifetime" tries to capture and burlesque those zany, hyperactive days in Hollywood when Al Jolson had just dropped a bomb with the first talking film, "The Jazz Singer," and every studio was spending money drunkenly trying to catch up with this new technology.
Suddenly, silent film stars' careers crashed because they were discovered to have previously hidden lisps or other voice defects, and an entire industry groped for fresh acting talent, script writers and the other necessities of this new film dimension.
Kaufman and Hart's script posits three down-and-out New York vaudevillians whose brightest member realizes the need for voice coaches in Hollywood. With an IQ range of from 90 to maybe 120, this unlikely but somehow lovable trio bumbles its way into a series of roller-coaster hirings and firings, failures and dubious successes always based on good luck, redeeming a dumb decision.
It's directed by Duncan McIntosh, with glistening Art Deco chrome and neon set by Mary Kerr neatly complemented by Robert Thomson's lighting. Christopher Donison is music director.
A wonderfully dingy walk-up flat in New York and a nicely stylized Pullman car for the trips to and from Hollywood contrast well with the fancy but gauche Hollywood office sets.
Jim Mezon is Jerry, the mover of the trio, fast talking and slippery enough to get out of trouble some of the time. Nora McLellan plays May, the solidest brashest and most cynical member, while Dan Lett is ideally cast as George Lewis, a slow and simple country lad whose obsession with audibly cracking India nuts drives everyone mad.
But it is he who ill-advisedly speaks up to bigshot producer Herman Glogauer, wonderfully played by Robert Haley with a mix of "cherman" and New York Jewish accents.
By luck, Glogauer admires George's directness, promotes him to supervisor, and suddenly he becomes Dr. Lewis. On his first assignment, he blunderingly produces the wrong script, but the critics (in a telling jab by the authors) read all kinds of subtleties into a lousy movie where there are none, and it becomes a hit.
This is the kind of stage fare in "Once in a Lifetime." It is superbly produced, fast-paced, and McIntosh's direction gets just about all there is out of this rather mindless script.
There is, just as in the Hollywood marvels it is spoofing, a cast of thousands on the Festival Stage, and they all pour their hearts and bodies into every line, every gesture. I suppose the Shaw Festival needs this sort of thing for a change of pace, but given as an option one of the French or English farces so popular a few years ago, I'd take the latter any day.
On opening night there seems to have been as much drama backstage as out front. After the performance, the news leaked out that in a couple of weeks Nora McLellan will leave the casts of "Once in a Lifetime" where she is a major player, and "Berkeley Square," where she has a minor role. She will be replaced in "Once In a Lifetime" by Charlotte Moore.
The festival's spokesman's statement that it was "for personal reasons" and the timing of the announcement (opening night) suggests that there may be more to the story than could be determined before press deadline.