Reviewed by Danny Macchietto, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Watching McKinney Repertory Theatre’s annual melodrama, The Return to Calamity Gulch, I discovered that I don’t have much appreciation for the throwing of the popcorn ritual. It is a staple of a centuries old tradition but I am not so sure it adds anything to today’s theatre going experience.
The melodrama flourished during the time of the Civil War and thereafter, when there was a passionate and political reason to throw your popcorn at the dastardly villains. Today, there are plenty of justified reasons to seek vindication in a few rounds of pelting Orville Redenbacher but I’ve yet to see a newly written melodrama that was as interested in making the genre as relevant to today’s times as it was perhaps in the mid to late 1800s.
Yes, I could have easily done without all of the pointless popcorn throwing, but if you took all of that away, there was plenty to appreciate in Whitney Ryan Garritt’s dialogue heavy script. Return to Calamity Gulch lovingly embraces the tired formula of the melodrama, yet at the same time creates a tongue-in-cheek parody on its own conventions.
All of the stock characters you expect to see in a melodrama are present. The obligatory hero, heroine, villain, villainess, widow, sheriff and piano player are all here in a story that involves a possible double wedding and an inheritance. That’s the bare bones of the story, of which one can take it or leave it, as the plotting is intricately devised in the first act. It is difficult to keep up with all the character’s shifts of motive in the second act as the popcorn throwing becomes a major distraction in hearing some of the key plot points.
Nicole Holbert as the heroine Pansy Perriwinkle and Joe Shimek as the hero Peter Loveless have some of the show’s most enjoyably comedic bits. Mr. Shimek projects a sweet and sincere aw-shucks attitude when Peter philosophizes about the destiny of true love. Ms. Holbert is pitch-perfect with her plucky and Pollyannaish demeanor. You hope that when these two characters meet there will be chemistry of a potent level. There is.
Their dialogue exchanges go deeper than the typical melodrama without ever compromising the abundant laughs of a string of comic misunderstandings the two share. One such misadventure involves a series of Peek-a-Boo games as a running gag and elicits the single best line of the evening from Ms. Holbert: “It’s as if my eyes were covered from the truth.” This could have easily been a throwaway line, but with Holbert’s delivery it easily is a moment to savor for it’s undeniably idyllic and naive charm.
Katelyn Walsh as the villainous Violet seems to get the most mileage out of her character’s bad deeds. She plays an excellent foil to Holbert’s Pansy Perriwinkle. Early on in the first act her character goes through an intense and high-pitched, manic temper tantrum that is the funniest example of the slow burn I’ve seen in a long time.
Rosanna Leahy as Ma Culpepper plays matriarch of the family. She is entertainingly spunky throughout. Laura Powers reprises her role as Ivory Keyes, looking afar from her piano and occasionally commenting on the action.
Gary Powers is effortless as the main villain, Horace Prickley; however, at times it would have been nice to see him sweat a little bit because it seemed that he wasn’t relishing his role. He comes across as too smooth and internalized for the audience to fully enjoy his character’s manipulations. This is a role the typically begs for scenery chewing but Mr. Powers chooses to go more low key.
Like most melodramas, the production climaxes with a chase sequence. Without giving anything away, The Return to Calamity Gulch has a lot of momentum going into this final climax, but by then the play is starting to overstay its welcome as the total running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission.
Lloyd Turney does a good job utilizing the entire theatre space, including the house for the staging of this chase sequence, but it very quickly becomes the scene that an audience expects to see and not necessarily is performed with the same heart and conviction as everything leading up to it.
A special praise must be given to Robert Whittman who arranged all of the music. I applaud his decision to take over a handful of current pop tunes of the last three decades and putting a melodramatic twist to each of them. It was refreshing and allowed the viewer to silently participate in a sort-of Name that Tune charade as the action moved along.
Return to Calamity Gulch allowed me to appreciate a melodrama for a couple of fleeting hours, with the music, fine performances, and a winning script from Whitney Garrity. In all fairness, I can’t really penalize the production for inviting the audience to throw popcorn at a MELODRAMA. If I did, that would make me the villain, when I’d rather just be the curmudgeon critic.
RETURN TO CALAMITY GULCH
McKinney Repertory Theatre
@ Courtroom Theatre of McKinney Performing Arts Center (MPAC)
111 N. Tennessee Street, McKinney, TX 75069
Runs through August 12th
Show times: Friday, Aug 10th @ 8pm, Saturday, Aug 11th at 8pm and Sunday, Aug 12th at 2pm.
Tickets are $17 for adults, $14 for students & seniors, $12.80 for senior group rates, and $12 for children 12 and under.
For tickets call 214-544-4630 or purchase online at www.mckinneyrep.org