“You Can’t Take It With You”

photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Play: “You Can’t Take It With You”

Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road

Dates: Through October 3

Tickets: From $15; contact 314-968-4925 or http://www.repstl.org

Story: It’s a typical day at the Vanderhof residence in New York City in the Great Depression year of 1936. Grandpa has returned from listening to the commencement address at Columbia University, an annual pleasure of his. Daughter Penny is working on her latest play at a typewriter that was delivered accidentally to the home years earlier, while her husband Paul and his friend Mr. De Pinna work on their fireworks production in the basement. Daughter Essie practices her ballerina lessons from Russian instructor Kolenkhov, with little success. Her husband Ed improvises new versions of old musical compositions at the xylophone and plans his latest printing, inserting slogans he likes into boxes of candy that Essie makes. Family maid Rheba prepares a meal of corn flakes while her boyfriend Donald handles various chores around the house.

Everyone is delighted when daughter Alice arrives home from her office job with the news that her boyfriend, Tony Kirby, will be visiting. Tony is vice president of Kirby & Co. and smitten with Alice. When the two decide to marry, Tony arranges to bring his stuffy parents, Anthony and Miriam, to dinner to the Vanderhof residence, but they show up a night early. The sights and sounds of the Vanderhof household prove to be a culture shock to the stuffy Kirbys, but the surprises are only beginning.

Highlights: Moss Hart collaborated with George S. Kaufman on this enduring comedy back in 1936, and their effort was met with critical and popular acclaim. The show ran for 837 performances and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937.

It’s easy to see why. The writing is crisp, the dialogue witty and the characters are uniformly engaging. The show has been revived numerous times, including a wonderful 1979 TV adaptation with Art Carney as Grandpa. After all these years, “You Can’t Take It With You” remains sweet and gentle, offering useful bromides for how life should be lived. When Grandpa remarks that “If people weren’t so excitable, there wouldn’t be times like these,” he makes a cautionary comment on 2010 that Nostradamus would envy.

The Rep is opening its 2010-11 season with its second presentation, and first in 40 years, of this landmark gem. Artistic director Steven Woolf and his effervescent cast capture all of the charm and charisma of this warm-hearted treasure in a smoothly calibrated, easy-going production that is infectious in its camaraderie and a merry jaunt throughout its three acts.

Other Info: Joneal Joplin, a true star of The Rep for four decades, anchors the presentation with a winning portrait of Grandpa. His portrayal is nicely measured as he stays within the wisdom of the character, opening the stage to the more flamboyant roles. Anderson Matthews is an audience favorite as the overly theatrical Kolenkhov, from his clever intonation on his initial “How do YOU do?” salutation to his introduction of the legendary Grand Duchess Olga Katrina, now waiting tables at Child’s Restaurant in the wake of the Russian Revolution. The latter is played amusingly by Barbara Kingsley, who also has priceless moments as the subdued Mrs. Kirby who comes alive in an impromptu parlor game.

Stephanie Cozart has great fun as the irrepressible if untalented Essie, and Jamie LaVerdiere shows his musical aplomb measuring out bits of Beethoven on the xylophone as her devoted husband Ed. Carol Schultz is properly understated as the daffy but decent Penny, while Tony Campisi suitably plays her pyrotechnic husband Paul with a steady hand. Scott Schafer does well as the dutiful Mr. De Pinna, with a preciously funny moment as he acknowledges the Grand Duchess’ arrival at the Vanderhof home.

Rachel Leslie and Scott Whitehurst are amusing as Rheba and boyfriend Donald, with the latter showing a knack for physical comedy making a dash to the neighborhood A&P, and Susie Wall makes the most of her quick part as a tipsy actress invited home by Penny to read one of her plays with her own comic propensity. Amelia McClain and Benjamin Eakeley are good as the “normal” Alice and Tony, though their parts are obviously subdued compared to most of the others. Jeffrey Hayenga nicely develops the quiet role of Mr. Kirby, while Todd Lawson is humorous in a small scene as an IRS agent attempting to collect Grandpa’s years of back income taxes.

John Ezell’s sumptuous set appears ready for immediate habitation, accentuated by Essie’s bizarre skull-shaped candy dish and other quirky props, and Peter Sargent’s lighting lushly illustrates Ezell’s grand design. Elizabeth Covey’s costumes are a hit from the dapper attire of Mr. Kirby to the expressive garb of Kolenkhov to Essie’s funky dancer wardrobe, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design adds immeasurably to the presentation with a handsome recreation of Big Band melodies and ‘crooner’ tunes, with additional kudos to music coach John Brophy. A special nod goes to dance coach Ellen Isom for maintaining the ‘bad’ style of Essie’s terpsichorean attempts.

While it lags on occasion, this rendition of “You Can’t Take It With You” is stylish and entertaining stuff and an upbeat start for the new season.

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.