Harmless 'Sixpence' comes alive in Act Two

by David A. Rosenberg

            Spirited but peculiarly joyless, Goodspeed Musicals’ “Half a Sixpence” trails a program cover that declares it to be “a sidesplitting musical comedy.” You’d never guess it, judging from the audience reaction at a performance seen between the public and press openings. True, spectators come alive, as does the show, in the second half. But this tuneful work, which played 512 performances on Broadway in 1965, is starved by directorial and choreographic choices that serve more as distractions than nourishments.

If the show were strong enough, objections might be chalked up to nit-picking. But “Sixpence,” with music and lyrics by David Heneker and a book by Beverly Cross (based on H. G. Wells’ novel “Kipps”), is a light affair that needs all-around care in its familiar knocking of that English bugaboo, the class system,

Wells was a draper’s assistant and so is his hero, Arthur Kipps, doomed to live below stairs in Shalford’s Emporium (motto: “Efficiency, System, Economy”). He loves Ann, a poor, straightforward gal. As a sign of his affection, he gives her one half of a broken sixpence, keeping the other half for himself. But, when he comes into an inheritance, the cash-strapped Helen Walsingham, egged on by her mother, sinks her greedy claws into him. With the help of a Bernard Shaw-like character named Chitterlow, all turns out well, of course.

“Sixpence” began as a vehicle for the irrepressible Tommy Steele who starred in it in London, New York and on film. Not that the show can’t be performed by others. At Goodspeed, the multi-talented Jon Peterson is ingratiating, energetic and winning. In his big Act Two scene, he rises to delightful heights when he tells off his fiancée’s family. All right, so he doesn’t play the banjo in “Money to Burn,” one of choreographer Patti Colombo’s repetitious numbers.

Colombo, whose dances for Goodspeed’s “Seven Brides” were wows, doesn’t repeat her success. Only in the second act opening, “A Proper Gentleman,” does she create steps in keeping with the characters. Elsewhere (except, perhaps, for snapping braces or flipping umbrellas), it’s all frantic thumping. When Kipps supposedly throws sand on the ground for a tap dance, it’s all pretend. At the big summing-up dance towards the end, there’s no demarcation between reality and fantasy.

Nor is the evening helped by director Gordon Greenberg who’s not above upstaging his actors, as in having one character steal cockles from a wagon while Kipps and Ann sing the title song. Later, warbling “I Know What I Am,” Ann pulls Kipps’ head to her bosom, an out-of-place comic gesture. Greenberg’s awkward staging calls attention to itself.

If the evening were more engaging, these cavils would be minor. After all, there’s that cheerful score, some bright costumes by David C. Woolard (especially for the Act One finale, sparking the evening’s one good joke) and Rob Bissinger’s attractive scenery (with an amusing inside gag).

As Ann, the miscast Sara Gettelfinger towers over Peterson, prompting lines about her being “tall” that were probably not in the original. Jeff Skowron is a lively Chitterlow, Julia Osborne a pert Helen and Donna English all hauteur as Helen’s mom. Carrington Vilmont is an annoyingly effete Walsingham son and some poor chap is forced to mince in as Oscar Wilde, green carnation and limp wrist at full tilt.

Okay, it’s all harmless and, since it improves as it plods along, it will leave audiences if not ecstatic, at least then not depressed. Maybe that’s enough.

This review originally appeared in The Hour, Norwalk, July 31, 2008

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