If the Great American Melodrama’s latest production seems a little old-fashioned, there’s a good reason for that.
“From Rags to Riches, or, ‘I Will Not Pay the Price You Ask’ ” was first performed in 1903.
Penned by the original “Master of the Melodrama,” Charles A. Taylor, the play features a quartet of plucky, poverty-stricken protagonists, a kindly old millionaire, and a craven, conniving villain one mustache twirl shy of Snidely Whiplash.
In short, it’s a story straight out of a Horatio Alger novel.
Performances of “From Rags to Riches,” which runs through Sept. 16, alternate with the Western spoof “Gunsmokin’, or, All’s Riot on the Western Front.”
Set in turn-of-the-century New York City, “From Rags to Riches” revolves around industrious newsboy Ned (Christopher Jensen) and his sister Flossie (Molly Laurel), an innocent but foolish girl.
Fourteen years ago, the siblings were separated from their parents. They’ve been raised by street vendor Mother Murphy (Crystal Davidson) since then.
Intelligent, enterprising Ned is determined to find his fortune through hard work and thrift. But Flossie is more easily tempted — especially when wealthy gambler “Prince” Charlie Montgomery (Philip David Black) promises to make her his wife.
Little does Flossie know that Charlie already has an ersatz spouse, adventuress Flora Bradley (also Davidson), at home. Nor does the girl suspect that Charlie is the one who framed her father, Albert Cooper (Alex Sheets), and seduced her mother, Gertrude (Kat Endsley), eventually putting one parent in prison and the other in the hospital.
Charlie’s dastardly deeds don’t stop there. He and Flora plan to poison his disapproving uncle, retired merchant Old Montgomery (Kraig A. Kelsey), with the help of stereotypical thug Gypsy Joe (Kelsey again). Then they’ll inherit his estate.
Can retired cop Arthur Brown (Steven Freitas) and Irish patrolman Mike (Von Cleve Lewis) stop their sinister plot and reunite the Cooper clan?
Directed by Eric Hoit, who served two stints as Melodrama artistic director before passing the reins to Nova Cunningham in 2010, “From Rags to Riches” pairs an appealingly hokey plot with Victorian values.
The Melodrama sets the turn-of-the-century scene with the help of music by Mark Pietri, period costumes by Renee Van Niel and sets by Brian Williams that transport audience members from the streets of the Bowery to the roof of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Although Philip David Black and Crystal Davidson are enjoyably evil as the play’s villains, it’s young Christopher Jenson who is the true standout.
As intrepid Ned, he’s the sort of plucky young lad who has inspired readers of boys’ adventure novels since the late 19th century.
Molly Laurel, in comparison, seems overshadowed as the token damsel of distress.
Following “From Rags to Riches” is the vaudeville revue “Country Barn Dance Revue,” directed and choreographed by Hoit. Pietri provides musical direction, arrangements and accompaniment.
A cheerful tribute to country living, “Country Dance” finds most of the cast dancin’, singin’, pickin’ and grinnin’ in a scene like something out of “Oklahoma!”
The men show off their high-stepping skills while performing “Next to Lovin’ (I Like Fightin’)” from the Tony Awardwinning musical “Shenandoah,” while the women channel Tammy Wynette with “Stand By Your Man.”
They come together to recreate the themes to “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Andy Griffith Show” by blowing across beer bottles.
The Melodrama doesn’t hesitate to poke a little good-natured fun at country culture, either, parodying Jeff Foxworthy’s famous comedy routine “You Might Be a Redneck” and cracking a few jokes about the bizarre titles of country songs. ( “She Got the Ring and I Got the Finger” and “In the Gas Station of Love I Got the Self-Service Pump” are two fictional favorites.)
The revue closes with a spirited cover of John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” followed somewhat incongruously with the lullaby “Sleepy Man” from the musical “The Robber Bridegroom.”