You can always beat a good concept to death, and that's what seems to have happened to the Reduced Shakespeare Company's (Abridged) franchise. Its best-known productions, which have been performed by the RSC and others on stages around the world, compressed the entirety of Shakespeare's works and all of American history into tight comedic revels. These were riotous shows, and led to high hopes for the Orlando Theatre Project's take on the company's 1998 hit, Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (Abridged). All the elements were there: proven writers (Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor), excellent actors and a company with a reputation for rarely missing the mark in comedy. But the result is shocking: The script seems to have been tossed together out of silly jokes, shtick and '90s PC humor, and not even the talented cast can pull the audience's reaction up to "muted."
The show claims to cover all of Western civilization, "from Beowulf to Baywatch." Along the way, a dozen or more songs of various genres attempt to pull a few jokes out of the Viking invasion, Joan of Arc, the Black Plague and Hitler. Humor certainly lurks in these evil nooks of history, and many before have wrung laughs out of massacre and blood, but not here. Even the running gags about Mamie Eisenhower don't seem to click (and I always thought she was our funniest first lady). You see the jokes coming, you watch the actors set them up, and when the punch line appears, you think, "Yeah … I see … that's funny." But you rarely feel moved to laugh.
Things get off to a suspicious start with the opening number, "History Ain't What It Used To Be", a vaudeville derivative that merely seems to fill time. Subsequent songs are a little better, like the swinging "Rats!" and the ballet-themed "Gay", but others, like "Heavenly Bodies," feel awkward and wither on the vine. The show's promise "to offend everyone" isn't fulfilled; even the two most threatening titles, "Do Let's Be Frank About the Muslims" and "Everyone Hates the French," pull all their punches. I actually like the French, and I felt embarrassed for them after that number.
There are a few scattered laughs. Jim Howard makes a pretty funny Adam Smith, singing a few lines about laissez-faire economics and telling a perfunctory joke about Scotsmen and their sheep. Brandon Roberts' highlight is his portrayal of Thomas Crapper, the man who made indoor plumbing a part of our lives. He grins evilly as he sits there reading the paper, affording our best connection with the story (such as it is). Comedienne Allison DeCaro looks great doing high leg kicks in time to a rimshot, hoping against hope to pull a weak giggle out of an otherwise near-comatose audience.
It's painful to watch good comedians die, and Western Civilization: The Complete Musical (Abridged) hurts a lot. Heck, even the fart jokes are embarrassing (and you can almost never go wrong with gaseous humor). This abridgement suffers from shallow, dated jokes, a whiny robot telling us what we are about to see and an overall lack of bite. The show is filled with opportunities for audience interaction, but even the spectacle of DeCaro chewing up a man's program and spitting it back in his face felt out of place. Several audience members are seated at small cabaret tables on stage; at the performance we attended, not all of them made it back from intermission.
You've heard it before: If we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it. But that doesn't mean I recommend repeating the Abridged experience.
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