FORT WORTH It turns out that cockroaches have feelings, too.
Or at least Archy does.
We know this because he is the star of Archy & Mehitabel, a delightfully wacky musical comedy based on the writings of early 20th-century newspaper columnist Don Marquis, which opened at Hip Pocket Theatre on Friday. The show, which had a cup of coffee on Broadway in 1957 (only 49 performances), is also known as Shinbone Alley.
The premise for Marquis’ columns, and this show, is that Archy (Preston Isham), a surprisingly literate insect, scuttles into Marquis’ office each night and composes poems and essays on love and life on the columnist’s typewriter. The trademark of Archy’s poetry and prose is that it is all lowercase because he is not heavy enough to depress the Shift key, which makes you wonder about who e.e. cummings really was.
This show, with music by George Kleinsinger and a book by Mel Brooks and Joe Darion (who also did the lyrics), focuses on Archy’s affection for Mehitabel (Rebo Hill), a sexy alley cat whose typically feline personality is a consistent source of pain and consternation to the word-slinging bug. Its story is told in a series of songs and scenes involving the title characters and the other cats and (not so) creepy crawlers that call Shinbone Alley home.
Directed with a whimsical touch by Sharon Benge, one of the finest and most experienced theater directors in North Texas, this brightly and garishly costumed (way to go Diane Simons) romp makes a great curtain raiser for Hip Pocket’s 37th season. The theater does “fun” and “goofy” well, and this show is loaded with both of those elements.
Isham and Hill are especially good in their lead roles, striking the right tone for the material in both their acting and singing. And they receive plenty of energetic help from the supporting players. Michael Joe Goggans, as the thespian cat Tyrone T. Tattersall, makes the absolute most of a relatively lengthy scene in which he tries to teach Mehitabel how to act. Kristi Smith, who did a masterful job as the show’s choreographer, also delivers one of the show’s better dance solos as a lightning bug. Heather Alverson provides one of the best vocal moments with her rendering of The Moth Song.
The musical accompaniment is provided onstage by musical director Joe Rogers, an outstanding keyboardist and arranger who is well-known to area audiences for his long association with Jubilee Theatre. As it seems is always the case, Rogers’ work is tasteful and extremely sensitive to the needs of the singers.
But a slight shortcoming of Archy & Mehitabel is that there is too great a contrast between the amplified portions of the show (the narration by Johnny Simons, as Marquis, and Rogers’ keyboard) and the un-miked singers. Despite Rogers’ best efforts to strike a balance, the voices sometimes come across as thin. And if you find yourself looking at the back of a singer, which happens on occasion, you are not likely to be able to hear his or her voice.
But it is easy to overlook those little blemishes because of the overall wit and spirit of the production. It is a perfect bit of summer fluff to take in under the stars, because this singing-dancing-typing cockroach never even heard of Franz Kafka.