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Sunday, 08 September 2013 20:58

'The Last Night of Ballyhoo': Are Star-bellied Sneetches Better?

Written by Laura Kyro
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'The Last Night of Ballyhoo': Are Star-bellied Sneetches Better?
theatreguildwg.org

Dr. Seuss, in his 1961 story, "The Sneetches," taught a lesson against prejudice that no Sneetch was different or better than any other Sneetch, whether or not they had stars on their bellies. Playwright Alfred Uhry is exploring a very similar issue of prejudice in The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves' current production, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo."

The thematic basis of the 1939-set dramedy "Ballyhoo" is that some German-heritage Jews think themselves different— even superior—to Eastern- (Poland, Russia, Czech) heritage Jews, as separated by the Elbe river. This thinking has colored the lives of the Freitag family, who have become more westernized over time so as to fit in with their upper class, non-Jewish neighborhood. Matriarch Boo Levy (Rebeca Davidson), believes Eastern-heritage Jew Joe Farkas (Andrew Rea), a new employee in the family bedding business, is "Too Jewish," and lower class, and certainly unsuitable as a match for her flighty daughter, Lala (Jessica Johns), or her Wellesley-matriculating niece, Sunny (Katie Schares). The head of the family, Boo's brother Adolph (a nicely low-key Ray Shea), doesn't see a problem, nor does dotty-but-shrewd widowed sister-in-law, and Sunny's mother, Reba (Annie Bayer).

Ballyhoo, in this time period, is an Atlanta, Georgia multi-day Holiday event held by a restrictive country club (St. Louisans may draw similarities to our Veiled Prophet event). Socially awkward Lala feigns disinterest in attending the lavish last night of Ballyhoo dance, but is obviously obsessed with going, and showing off a garish "Gone with the Wind"-style formal. Joe spurns overtures by Lala, but gravitates to open-minded Sunny, visiting home for the Holiday. He causes first Sunny, then the rest of the family, to examine their ideas of what it means to be Jewish. Lala finally realizes her dream when snobbish "Peachy" Weil (Tom Day, appearing only briefly—but with a big impact) not only takes her to the dance, but also proposes.

Director Betsy Gasoske did a fine job of casting, and each actor seemed to lose themselves in their roles. The production started a bit tentatively (this being opening night), and some lines were iffy, but once it got going everyone settled in with nice pacing, and many laughs were to be had. Some characterizations were a bit over the top, but that didn't detract overmuch from the roles they were playing. An attentive crew of three scene changers kept things moving, and nicely corralled a wayward set of curtains.

Technically, the stage was a well-appointed dining and sitting room (Mark R. Choquette), lights (Debbie Love) were effective, and costumes appropriate for all characters.

"Last Night of Ballyhoo" runs 2:20 with a 15-minute intermission. It will be performed at The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves (517 Theatre Lane) through September 15, 2013. For more information: www.theatreguildwg.org.

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