Life is weird and beautiful
Inspire’s wacky and uplifting production of Broadway classic hits right notes
“Life is simple and kind of beautiful if you let it come to you. But the trouble is, people forget that.” Those words spoken by the character of Martin Vanderhof—the patriarchal Grandpa at the center of You Can’t Take It With You—and included in the director’s notes for Inspire School of Arts and Sciences’ current production of the play at the Blue Room Theatre, go hand in hand with the title as the guiding message for this 1936 Broadway comedy.
And, after taking in a very spirited matinee performance last Sunday, I have to say that the Inspire youngsters—directed by drama teacher Joyce Henderson (and assisted by student Olivia Jolley)—did a nice job of capturing those ideas and delivering a fun reminder of the beauty of which we sometimes lose sight.
The basic premise finds Alice (played by Nicole Jolliffe), a daughter from the kooky Sycamore family, and Tony (Alden Tichinin), a son from the straight-laced Kirby family, falling for one another. Alice immediately fears that her eccentric family—with dad in the basement making fireworks, mom typing plays in the living room, Grandpa tending to his pet snake, and sister dancing around the house with a crazed Russian dance instructor barking at her—will not be able to control themselves and be too much for Tony’s uptight stock-broker father and equally icy mother to bear. And she is, of course, right on both counts.
But the Sycamore family really isn’t all that nuts. They are just following Grandpa’s lead of leaving the rat race behind and letting life come to him. As a result, they’re too busy living and following their various passions to worry about appearances … or even stocking up on groceries (dinner one night includes watermelon, corn flakes and candy).
George Kaufman and Moss Hart won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for this play that stands the test of time by delivering its timeless carpe diem message via smart and funny dialogue, against the backdrop of this constantly-in-motion household.
And for Inspire’s rendition, all the players and crew deserve kudos for what was a fun, briskly presented show. First, the stage was set beautifully. Chico theater mainstay David Beasley’s set was an impressively designed rendition of the Sycamore/Vanderhof’s mid-1930s home, overstuffed with wood furniture and featuring a deceptively smooth flow for the briskly paced entrances and exits. And the costumes, by students Lucy Greenfield, Mahri Gray and Morgan Heffley, were gorgeous and impeccably tailored.
Among the young actors, I’ll limit it to three shout outs. Matthew Stone was very warm and magnetic, playing well beyond his years as the calm Grandpa at the center of the storm, delivering his well-timed lines with a Devil-may-care earnestness; Leo Daverson was a riot as histrionic dance-instructor Boris Kolenkhov; and Katie Taylor, as the dancing daughter Essie, was the embodiment of all of the free-spirited goodness at the heart of the play, dancing with giddy energy from spot to spot with an expressiveness and a real knack for the goofy physicality and timing necessary for her screwball character.
Sure, there was some rushed dialogue in a few places—making for a couple of rough exchanges—but it really wasn’t so out of place in a house where folks were supposed to be going totally bananas.
There was also something about having teenagers playing these parts that set up a relationship between them and the audience that was not unlike the one between the Sycamores and the Kirbys. The unspoiled, authentic youthfulness that was brought to what are supposed to be carefree versions of adults was effective at melting away any pretense brought to the theater. The actors threw themselves into following Grandpa’s lead of being “happy in our own sort of way,” and it was infectious.
Of course, the dynamic was probably different for the many young folks in the audience. They hopefully aren’t yet shouldering too much of the world’s weight, but they do like to laugh. And for the teenagers sitting near me Sunday, the play had them laughing their heads off throughout—which is probably all the recommendation you really need.