Chris Hoch and Matt Cavenaugh in Palm Beach(Photo © Ken Howard)
Chris Hoch and Matt Cavenaugh in Palm Beach
(Photo © Ken Howard)
During the Great Depression and in the years leading up to World War II, Hollywood produced screwball comedies to take people's minds off their own bleak circumstances. Now, in 2005, we have Palm Beach, a screwball musical comedy that's receiving its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse.

Book writers Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman are up on their screwball ingredients. There's the rich but incompetent family, the beleaguered but wiser servants, and the poor outsiders eager to sample the high life. There are mistaken identities, lies, twins separated at birth, mismatched lovers, romantic entanglements, stolen jewelry, secret indiscretions revealed, etc.

The Fitch family, leaving New York for the 1939 Palm Beach season, is headed by the gruff but lovable Wilton (Ryan Hilliard) and his blonde, dithering wife Eustacia (Heather Lee, delightfully channeling Billie Burke). Their three offspring -- that is, the three we know about at the start -- are the overly ambitious, bitter, man-hungry Jessica (Anastasia Barzee, looking like Rita Hayworth but chewing the scenery like Joan Crawford), the playboy son Lance (Matt Cavenaugh, with perfectly chiseled everything), and the hypochondriac Victoria (Amanda Watkins, wheezing hilariously as she sings).

Add in a trusty butler (John Alban Coughlan) , two maids named Tessa, the high dreaming and high stepping Jimmy (Noah Racey), and you have a houseful of colorful characters. The outsiders include showgirl Liz (knockout Erica Piccininni ); her ex-lover, a newsman named Max (the solid Clarke Thorell); and enigmatic nightclub star Leo (Chris Hoch). The writers have plenty of material to work with, which is part of the problem here, especially in the overlong first act. There are too many characters and too many plotlines. Cuts need to be made to make this breezy entertainment more compact and entertaining; one potential cut would be the filmic framing device in which the Fitches are introduced as the perfect American family by the "Morality League Choir." (They are proven to be less than perfect by show's end.)

Though the show is set in 1939, it has a modern sensibility that encompasses jokes on such subjects as gay marriage in Massachusetts. The book in general and some of the characters, especially Jessica, are nastier and more vulgar that anything you'll find in an authentic screwball comedy. Though the show is not as crass as the current Broadway hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it does have a tendency to go for cruel jibes rather than urbane wit.

The songs -- music by David Gursky, lyrics by Cary -- possess the flavor and varying styles of the '30s as well as other periods, but none of them really memorable. "To Serve You" is a big tap number for Racey, "Fly With Me" is a tango for Watkins and Thorell, and "Lise" is a grandiose, Ziegfeld-style ballad for Cavenaugh. There's even a fast-paced Gilbert & Sullivan tongue twister for Coughlan ("To Be a Proper Servant") and some jazz scatting for Watkins and Piccininni, "A Bad Man Is Easy to Find." Eric Stein leads the very small (four-piece) pit band.

All of the cast members are first rate even if the material doesn't quite match their talents. Lee steals every scene in which she appears with her vocal mannerisms and perfect comic timing. Watkins runs her a close second, sucking on an inhaler between song lyrics. Cavenaugh, Piccininni, Racey, Thorell, and Barzee all look great and deliver the goods.

Director Des McAnuff, in collaboration with his talented designers, has worked his magic again. The show does have the look and feel of a film; the pacing is generally swift and sharp, though it does bog down sometimes because of the convoluted plot exposition. Debbie Roshe's stylish choreography is a highlight. Klara Zieglerova's multi level scenic design, which makes use of turntables, fly-ins, and backdrops, is splendid. Paul Tazewell's period costumes are gorgeous but not gaudy, and Howell Binkley's lighting sets off everything with a perfect glow.

Palm Beach has the makings of a hit if the creators can just tighten the show here and there; it's a fun evening that could be even more fun with some judicious editing.