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Adrift in Macao

Rachel DeBenedet and David McDonald
in Adrift in Macao
(Photo © Mark Garvin)
Adrift in Macao, the new one-act musical by Christopher Durang and Peter Melnick having its world premiere at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, doesn't succeed every single moment of its 90-minute running time. But when it thrives (which is far more often than not) it is a very appealing and surprisingly old-fashioned musical comedy.

Set in Macao, China in 1952, Adrift is a loving parody of the film noir pictures of the 1940s and 1950s. At the outset, we meet nightclub owner Rick Shaw (Michael Rupert), who bumps into a shapely blonde named Lureena (the statuesque Rachel deBenedet) hailing a rickshaw (Durang has great fun with this phonetic similarity). For no reason other than the fact that Lureena looks great in a purple evening gown and cheap jewelry, Rick immediately hires her to sing in his surf & turf/gambling casino -- which doesn't sit well with the club's current entertainer, Corinna (the amusing Michele Ragusa), a doll who both enjoys smoking opium and pursuing Rick. Also at Rick's is the club's Asian piano player Tempura (the enormously appealing Orville Mendoza), who smiles incessantly and makes everyone's business his own.

As in the film that gives the show its largest inspiration, Casablanca, the people stuck in Macao are waiting for something. The difference being that in Casablanca, they were waiting for visas, while the folks in Macao have no idea what they are waiting for. And while they wait in Rick's nightclub (creatively realized by scenic designer Thomas Lynch), in wanders Mitch (David McDonald), an American who has been framed for murder by a mysterious villain named McGuffin. (For the non- film-buffs in the audience, Durang provides a lengthy explanation that McGuffin is the nickname Alfred Hitchcock used for the idea that drove his plots.) And like many a Hitchcock film, Adrift's plot is nothing more than a device -- in this case, one employed by Melnick and Durang to generate puns, farcical dialogue and preposterous situations.

Melnick -- the grandson of Richard Rodgers -- writes songs that recall the great American musical comedies of the 1940s. Working with Durang's conventionally rhymed lyrics, he creates a score that's enjoyable without being overly memorable. The best songs are the dance numbers. With a chorus of two working triple-time, it's impossible not to enjoy the incessantly (some may say obnoxiously) catchy "Ticky Ticky Tocky" and the show stopping "Mister McGuffin," featuring Christopher Gattelli's relentlessly happy choreography.

As warrants a parody, nothing here is taken seriously. In fact, the fourth wall isn't so much broken as obliterated. In the show's funniest bit, the sensational Rupert -- whose mild and under-developed character receives no song of his own from Melnick -- complains to the audience about his terrible treatment by the authors. In a hysterical act of defiance, the actor launches into a song he reportedly purchased from another composer. (Maintaining the conceit, Rupert doesn't even receive credit in the program for the triumphant number, which brought the house down on opening night.)

Shrewdly directed by the very talented Sheryl Kaller, the play's ridiculousness works because the impressive cast plays the material with genuine sincerity. Moreover, unlike some of Durang's more outrageous comedies, it's hard to imagine any theatergoer finding the material in Adrift offensive. In fact, the musical's humor is so tasteful that it would be perfectly appropriate to bring older children to the production. They won't get all the jokes, but, like their parents, they should find this breezy musical comedy to be an entertaining diversion.

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