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Weekend Review: “Flora, the Red Menace”

By Kristin Aoun

May 11, 2008 9:11 p.m.

April showers bring May flowers. But this May is bringing distinctly different flora.

“Flora, The Red Menace” opened last week through Reprise! Theatre Company, formerly Broadway’s Best. With a cast that includes recent musical theatre sensation Eden Espinosa (“Wicked”) and Manoel Felciano (“Sweeney Todd”) the show is good ““ great at times ““ but overall it misses the cast’s potential to be spectacular.

The fact of the matter is that the story line of “Flora” is bad, even for musical theater. With music and lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (“Curtains,” “Cabaret” and “Chicago”) and based on the book by David Thompson written in the 1960s, “Flora” misses the nostalgic feel of its 1935 setting. The book is especially lacking compared to the songs, and is unsatisfying overall. It centers around bold Flora (Espinosa) and her love interest Harry (Felciano), whom she meets while desperately waiting to apply for a job as a fashion designer.

Harry is an unemployed artist, an uncontrollable stutterer, and an undeniable Communist. He convinces Flora ““ through song, of course ““ to sign up for the party, thus putting the “Red” in “Flora, the Red Menace.” Trouble arises when Communist comrade Charlotte (Megan Lawrence) tries to steal Harry for herself.

“Flora” allows the audience to see Espinosa, beautiful and “de-greenified” from her witch role, in a completely different way with a more feminine and comedic character, occasionally channeling Kristin Chenoweth of “Wicked” fame.

At first, it is surprising to hear Espinosa sing in an unfamiliar way. The music in “Flora” is unlike the modern “Wicked,” and more like traditional musical theater, though in a much less provocative style than one might expect of the lyricist and composer of “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” With highly controlled vibrato, Espinosa’s voice is pleasant to listen to and most audience members will probably prefer her modern interpretation of the music.

While there are some amazing, Elphaba-like-belting moments in the song “Sing Happy,” Espinosa manages to sing and act the more subtly powerful song “It’s a Quiet Thing” in an appropriately delicate and believable manner. It is worth seeing “Flora” just to see Espinosa perform this song.

Felciano performs Harry disturbingly well, embodying the creepy Communist to his comedic potential without upstaging the other actors. He attempts to bring a cute likability to Harry while balancing the necessity for the character to be attractive enough to have women fighting over him, but he misses through no fault of his own.

Perhaps the main problem with the show is that the audience does not really want Flora to stay with Harry; he is a rather possessed lover who puts the Communist party before her, and therefore does not care when their relationship begins to deteriorate. The characters go together about as well as Communism and fashion design.

Part of the bad script is the direction for the stage to be dressed to look like a stage, as if the production is part of the Works Projects Administration and the Federal Theatre Project of the New Deal era. Reprise! does notably attempt to add more excitement to the stage through creative lighting, costuming, and the band. However, many numbers are aesthetically unappealing partially due to choreography that, with the exception of an outstanding tap dance number, should more accurately be called simplistic blocking to music.

Perhaps there is a reason why “Flora, the Red Menace,” even after making Liza Minnelli famous in its 1965 Broadway debut, has not had a major revival since the Off-Broadway production in 1987.

The Reprise! production of “Flora, the Red Menace” has a talented cast of roses that with any other words would smell sweeter than with this script of weeds, yet still blossoms into a very entertaining show.

– Kristin Aoun

E-mail Aoun at [email protected]

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