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April 11, 2000

Ballyhoo Lacks Dazzle

A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson

Ballyhoo \bal-e-hu\ n. [Origin unknown] flamboyant, exaggerated, a noisy attention getter.

But the opening of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” by Alfred Uhry on March 24 by the Mobile Theater Guild was more understatement than the name suggests. “Ballyhoo” was a Jewish celebration with a big dance for the young people on the last night. And acceptance by the group, and their families whose traditions had become more southern than Jewish, was the theme.

The play was well cast and the actors did well. Each one of them had moments when it was hard to believe they were acting -- they were the character. Anthony Lord played the New Yorker, Joe Farkas, with a flawless accent and a set of values which were in stark contrast to the southern contingent, and Leslie Johnson as Reba Freitag was just believably dotty enough to be wise. Jean Reiner (Boo Levy) pushed her way through the play with all the aplomb of a controlling mother anxious to see her daughter well married-off, and Amanda Murdick, as the daughter appropriately named Lala, made the 20-year old bloom in her quest for Romance whether it was at Tara in Gone With the Wind or at Ballyhoo with Peachy Weil.

The set worked well on the stage. The placement of the dining room behind most of the acting area gave depth to one side of the stage and made the layout of the house interesting, but it wasn’t lit well when casually used.

Although commissioned for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival in Atlanta, both the play and its production lacked the dazzle that the title implies and the intensity that its 1939 setting needed. The performance was a little stiff in getting started as is expected on opening night, but even the later animation never seemed to give the play great life. The issues were significant and the irony was strong given the context, but the actors didn’t cash in on the poignancy. But then, neither did the playwright. The fact that one’s level of “Jewishness” was in question, and that “all that business in Europe” was “their problem” and would go away ought to have been the strong undercurrent of the play -- otherwise just make the characters a people with a strong ethnic background, not Jewish. What was well developed was the issue of approval and the lack of it in this rather disjunct family, and it had some great moments and some great lines (“Higher education can make you crazy”). But the other shoe never dropped, and the ballyhoo was a little hollow.


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