Some poets, of course, shun capital letters as an artistic choice. Archy, a sensitive cockroach with a writer’s ear, types in lower-case for purely practical reasons–he’s too small to reach the shift key and the letters simultaneously. Nevertheless, the philosophical insect types stories about his life on the streets, featuring the adventures of a free-spirited alley cat named Mehitabel. This is the premise of newspaperman Don Marquis’ clever free-verse poetry, which was originally published in his column for the New York Sun in the ‘teens and ’20s. The poems featured animals and were heavy on wit, yet they weren’t for children. They tackled dirty urban subjects under a lighthearted guise.
This is also the premise of the archy and mehitabel staged by the Masquers Playhouse this month. It’s terrific that a community theater is trotting out a musical that hasn’t been performed much. But frankly, if you’re looking for a taste of Archy’s musings, check out a book from your local library. It just doesn’t fare well onstage.
The problem is really the script, adapted by Joe Darion (Man of La Mancha) and Mel Brooks, which lets most of the darkness slip through the cracks, adopting instead a jokey, amiable tone. We see that Archy (Robert Love), who loves Mehitabel (Shay Oglesby-Smith), wants her to give up her wild life with tomcats and take a job as a respectable house cat. She, on the other hand, wants to be a party animal.
But there’s not much of a dramatic arc, or even a convincing relationship, between Archy and Mehitabel. Instead, it feels like a bunch of fragments strung haphazardly together with several weakly integrated tangential songs about other colorful characters on the street. Sometimes in this production, Archy tells unrelated stories to the audience, as in the song “The Bragging Flea,” with a tacked-on “punchline” ending, rather than Marquis’ own ambiguous observations. By the end of act one, it can be hard to maintain interest.
Despite this, Masquers Playhouse does fine with the details. There is an appealing ensemble of stray felines, costumed much like cast members from another well-known musical based on cat poetry. The music –a jazz ensemble–sounds great. Dance numbers are simple but effective, sticking to your basic jazz squares in a rather precise, brightly hued choreography.
But the reasons that readers dig Archy’s free verse aren’t readily apparent. It’s too bad, but maybe not surprising. After all, on the stage, you can’t see lower-case letters.