It was Opening Night for her new production of “Stalag 17,” and just before the opening curtain, the director, Marty Craig, stepped forward to address the Crighton Theater audience. She explained that when she first undertook the work, she thought she “must be crazy” to direct a play with a cast of seventeen men. But she went on to say that it turned out to be a lot of fun. Perhaps that is the reason this is such a fun-filled production.
As Craig stepped aside, the lights came up on the rugged and authentic set (Designer, Ron Craig) depicting a German prisoner of war barracks during World War II. The show opened with a short slide presentation honoring a number of local heroes of the war, like Ted Hughes of Conroe and Dale Wilkinson of The Woodlands. These men, and other honorees in the Opening Night audience, knew first hand that life, as a prisoner of war, was no laughing matter. But the comedy-drama of the play (written by Donald Bevin & Edmund Trcinski) allows us to take a reasonably painless look back at what had to have been a very painful period in history.
From military marches, to the Andrews Sisters, the show is sprinkled with period music that helps take us back to the 1940’s. The rustic barracks is brightened a bit with calendar pin-ups of Betty Grable. As we begin to meet the prisoners, perennial Crighton favorite, Dennis O’Connor, quickly lights up the room with the cantankerous antics of his crusty character, Harry Shapiro. Even when just pouring a cup of tea he is a riot. As Woodlands resident Dorothy Elfert remarked to me during the intermission, “I really like him!”
We meet Sgt. Price (suspiciously played by James Rankin), who leads the barracks prisoners and handles “security.” Then there is the amusing German Corporal, Schultz, comically played by Dale Trimble with mocking cruelty and a booming laugh. Trimble has a wonderful stage voice, and that seems to be true of most of the fine cast. There was also little evidence of dependence on microphones or amplifiers in this production, with fine Sound Design by Steve Garvin.
There is more comic fun as the guys gather to look at some girlie pictures. A love-deprived Harry quips, “Never have so many had so little for so long!” Then we learn that escape attempts have been repeatedly foiled, and there is much suspicion that there may be a spy within the prisoners’ ranks. But who can it be? I’ll not tell!
Wesley Fruge is well cast as the young prisoner, Herb Gordon. He has a boyish naturalness when reading his letter from Mom. And don’t miss the laughs in his hilarious bathtub scene and the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy underwear dance with his buddies. Then there is the sullen and brooding Sefton (Paul Sidenblad). He is the angry and simmering outsider in the barracks. Another actor with a very rich voice, Sidenblad brings an air of mystery to this pivotal character, known to many from William Holden’s performance in the film version. Next, a new prisoner, James Skylar Dunbar (David Troth) arrives on the scene with his buddy, Reed (Josh Melvin). Reed is a would-be actor and Mr. Melvin has fun spoofing his own profession in the role. Dunbar is from a family of wealth and privilege, and is deeply resented by Sefton. Another prisoner, Stosh (Joseph Lamont), is just as resentful toward Sefton, and tempers flare when Dunbar is taken away for interrogation.
Michael Hayes brings plenty of comic flair to the table in his role as the whiny-voiced deliveryman and courier, Marko. His flamboyant nonsense provides plenty of fun. Charlie Trotter performs a deliciously severe German Captain with a hot temper. Phil Ralston coolly portrays the smug Geneva Man who comes to review the camps adherence to Geneva Conventions. There are additional fine performances from Wesley Bush as Hoffy, Harley Dampier as Red Dog, Dick Martin as the German guard, Gabriel Blair as Duke, and Gil Mendez as Horney.
Whether depicting a fire or the searchlights of a prison camp, the lighting designs of Glen Payne were quite effective. Costumes were also very appropriate to the piece, although the program listed no costume designer. Of course, one last “star” worth mentioning is the lovely Crighton Theatre itself. After the show I took a friend upstairs to see some of the cast photos and rare Shakespearean engravings displayed in the beautiful balcony lobby. A group of excited high school students passed us on the stairs, and I overheard one young lady saying, “This place is prettier than the Houston Grand Opera!”
(The Courier 3.31.02)
(The Villager 4.4.02)