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A Somewhat Tasty Pudding Show

Filichia drags himself to Boston to sample the Hasty Pudding Show, Harvard's annual musical event. logo

Lovely Harvard lads show their stuff in the Hasty Pudding Show
In 1967, after I saw my first Hasty Pudding Show -- the annual original musical at Harvard University wherein the boys play both male and female roles -- I happened to mention to my friend John Harrison, "You should go next year. I think you'd really like it." Well, that turned out to be an understatement. John has been steadily attending since the heavenly 1968 show, All the Queen's Men, and has brought a few more friends with him every year. One of them, Tom Trevisani, then started to bring his friends. And so, last Sunday, I joined their party of 58 in seeing the 155th annual production, It's a Wonderful Afterlife. In a few more years, either John or Tom is probably going to get the club's annual "Man of the Year" prize, which this year went to Gangs of New York director Martin Scorsese. (Ummm, shouldn't a musical comedy organization have given that honor to Chicago director Rob Marshall?)

Perhaps if you were to attend a Pudding show, you too would start your own tradition of bringing your friends and relatives. Even when one of these original musical comedies completely misses the mark or just manages to be good-but-not-great (as this show was), there's still something wonderful about watching the talented cast perform with brio. Is the humor sophomoric? Well, let's put it this way: Of the 58 people in our group, the one who enjoyed the show most -- he was often seen doubled over with laughter -- was John's godson Keith Joyce, who's a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts.

Will Aronson and Ben St. Clair's book and lyrics for It's a Wonderful Aterlife first take us to heaven -- now woefully underpopulated, and not because people have been sinning too much. The problem is, according to Euripides Tikkets, "Customers refuse to die; we can't compete with science." Ray Nonurparade, Noah Fense, and Nun Taken woefully agree that advances in medicine are taking their toll.

Hell, hell isn't having an easy time of it, either -- though the problem there is that it just isn't as hellish as it once was. "We've lost that special pep, that penchant for orgies and ravers," moan and imp named Imp Potent, an accountant called Penny Pincha, and Stu Darnhot, whose job it is to stoke the fires of hell so they won't burn out. "We'll schedule a minimum of sins," they all insist. "Pride! Envy! Gluttony! Wrath! Sloth! Lust! B-school!" (Ah, no Hasty Pudding Show writer has ever spared that institution from some snide or self-deprecating remark, though each knock against Harvard was delivered with more good humor than those criticizing Yale and Wellesley.)

Also residing in heaven is former Roman general Curtis Interruptus, an ancient warrior who says he saw and conquered -- but as for "came," well, he's a little old for that now. Still, he's engaged to the much younger Mel Tinyamouf, and this May-December romance gets Curtis compared to Woody Allen and Michael Douglas. (As for that latter-named celebrity: How fleeting is glory! Douglas was named the club's Man of the Year only 11 years ago.)

Peter Filichia with fellow Pudding enthusiast John Harrison
Mel is smitten with Stu the moment she lays eyes on him. "You're hot," she sings. "The Sex God of Love has caressed us; I'll have to coat my breasts with asbestos." (Pudding Shows have never been known for their tact or elegance, as is evidenced by this observation and the one about Moses having had trouble with his wife and her burning bush. That line occurred in the midst of an inordinate number of fart jokes.)

The astonishingly complicated plot of It's a Wonderful Afterlife involves some hell-dweller's stealing the money that would have paid hell's overdue rent. Apparently, the place to be in the afterlife is Limbo, but you can only get there (by Helevator, of course) if you have a precious gem known as a Limbo Rock. How nice to see the young writers acknowledging baby boomers with this reference to a pop hit of yore! Yet I was surprised that choreographer Karen Maria Pisani didn't create a Limbo dance, or that director Tony Parise didn't think of ordering one.

Anyway -- Imp is found with the Limbo Rock, so everyone assumes he took the money, but villains Werma Hozat and Lilah Kedog actually planted it on him. Lilah also tries to influence Mel to stay with Curtis via another Pudding tradition: The running-pun song, in which Lilah warns of a woman who was sent flowers by a man who wants to "flora". That caused the woman to pucker her "tulips" because she was convinced he wouldn't "lilac" other men. (Alas, the authors didn't follow the rule that a musical theater song should move the action along; only after it was over did Mel make her decision to stay with Curtis.)

Meanwhile, Stu is depressed that Mel isn't requiting his love; so he goes to the all-too-predictably-named Hell's Kitchen, which is a Spanish-Chinese restaurant. It's run by Juan Than (pronounced Won Ton), who wears a fancy sombrero topped by a pagoda-like ornament from which emerges a fortune cookie message. Incidentally, Juan's pretty fond of delivering his own fortune cookie messages to anyone who'll listen, for example: "Man who fights with wife gets no piece." But Juan is emotionally there for his friend Stu and, to assuage the lad's grief, he, his associate Fawn Ikayshun, and Penny Pincha offer him "Miso Soup for the Soul." Juan sings, "Miso," prompting Fawn to sing "unhappy." And so it goes: "Miso..." "...distressed." "Miso..." "...unlucky." (Get it?) Even though Stu is a dimwit, he does get in a good one when he says to Mel, "You don't need a Rome G.I.; you need a Rome E.O."

Stu pays so much attention to Mel that he neglects his job as furnace stoker, so hell freezes over, leaving everyone there standing stiff. "We're frozen! The river sticks!" they sing, showing that kids still learn the classics at Harvard. The cast then does a frenetic dance, "The Brimstone Bounce." (Pudding Shows often offer what musical theater historian Ethan Mordden calls The New Dance Sensation -- the Varsity Drag, The Washington Square Dance, et al. One of the best was "The Goosebump Gavotte" in the 1972 show, The Wrongway Inn.)

As the cast was stompin' up a storm, I had to wonder how the characters were able to dance with such abandon, given that they were supposed to be frozen stiff. (At the other end of the temperature spectrum: I'm still trying to understand why, in the Kiss Me, Kate revival, Kathleen Marshall had her dancers dance just as frenetically when the weather was "Too Darn Hot.")

The "ladies" take one last bow
"I almost forgot!" Penny eventually yells. "We have to pay the rent!" Actually, the authors forgot about it, too -- for the longest time. But Broadway librettists have trouble with their books, so why shouldn't collegiate amateurs? Still, I was surprised that the authors missed the opportunity to put famous people in both dour hell and sweet heaven. They did come up with a felicitous ending where heaven and hell decide it's in their best interests to merge -- prompting the cast to sing that everyone will have "a Great Beyond beyond our wildest dreams!"

Of the cast, I most admired Peter Dodd (Penny), Thomas Lowe (Lilah), Shawn Snyder (Euripides), and Nicholas Ma (Juan). The Pudding Shows are where Jack Lemmon and Mo Rocca got their starts, so maybe these guys or some others will follow in their footsteps. But the biggest impression was made by composer Ben Green. The audience wildly applauded "Miso Soup" as if it were an up-tempo showstopper -- yet it was a waltz, the type of song that rarely if ever gets such an enthusiastic response. Green writes in a traditional musical comedy style and so he may very well have a Broadway career, given that the serious-British-musical invasion seems to have passed and happy-go-lucky entertainment is back in town. Best news of all: Green is only a freshman, so he's got plenty of time to develop.

During intermission, John, Tom, and the vast majority of our group of 58 said what a good time they were having. But what really made me smile came at the end of the show, an audience comment that I have heard during the kickline finale of virtually every Pudding Show I've ever attended. For as those boys were raising their gams high, a woman to the right of me pointed to the stage and told her husband, "I wish I had his legs."


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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