Those looking for a kinder, gentler view of the Mummers than some experienced on New Year’s Day 2016 will enjoy Philly native and accomplished musical theater creator (Baby Case, Café Puttanesca, Box Office of the Damned, six pantos at People's Light & Theatre Company) Michael Ogborn's shout-out to the controversial tradition, free of all issues, and its overall gush of love for Philadelphia.
More fun and more central, however, is Ogborn's incisive comical exploration of the Philadelphia accent in a Pygmalion-like plot that shows our heroine first overcoming her South Philly accent, then teaching it to a befuddled foreigner with an accent-collecting avocation. Ogborn uses the magical sentence "A coke and a hoagie to go," which hilariously illustrates the Philly accent, equaling the key phrase from My Fair Lady (the musical adaptation of Pygmalion), "the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain."
Along the way, Ogborn crafts — alone, impressively, since most musicals are written by teams — a genial romantic comedy about Little Marie (Rachel Brennan), toiling for a City Hall suit who dumps responsibility for Queen Marie of Romania's brief 1926 visit, which actually happened (in connection with the Sesquicentennial celebrations of that year). Ogborn doesn't let history interfere, though, focusing on Little Marie's mother, Big Marie's (Kathy Deitch) insistence that she find a husband.
Little Marie overcomes her accent and gets to meet Queen Marie (Mary Martello, in a brilliant star turn), who takes a liking to the plucky girl and luckily has a bachelor relative, Count Frederick (Jeffrey Coon), in tow. We can see the happy ending coming a mile away, but getting there is fun.
Mummers, of course
Mummers are involved humorously, as Little Marie's dad (John Monforto) and his pals (Neill Hartley, Josh Totora) whip up her evening dress overnight (picture sequins and feathers — designer Janus Stefanowicz has a lot of fun with this).
Thom Weaver's scenic design includes lively projections (designed by Dan Efros) and a modern Philadelphia skyline silhouette, which supports the show's "let's tell a story" framing and allows brisk scene changes. With Ryan Touhey's small band (assisted by actors at times) and a well-used ensemble, director Peter John Rios's production sails along blissfully. His choreography thankfully exceeds the sonorous Mummer Strut, though his effort to make the ensemble seem bigger by having them dance with dress forms on wheels in the fancy ballroom scene backfires.
Not just a show, but a brand?
Most theater created in Philadelphia (i.e., everything but the tours booked by the Kimmel Center) follows the nonprofit regional model, but The Three Maries dares to be different. Producers Monica Horan Rosenthal (a Darby native widely known for her role on TV's Everybody Loves Raymond), husband Phil Rosenthal, and Julianna Schauerman have created No Attytude Productions with the hope of running The Three Maries "for years to come," says their mission statement. "Creating a brand" seems more business than art, but it's easy to like the idea of this quality feel-good celebration becoming both a local favorite and a tourist destination.
Opening during the holidays and at a venue, the Prince Theater, that hasn’t staged live theater for a few seasons, certainly adds to the risk. The Mummers' less than pristine image of late doesn't help either.
Seeing The Three Maries before it closes on Sunday could allow "I saw it first" bragging rights if it takes off, or "I was one of the few who saw it" cachet if it doesn't. But don't overthink it. See the show for its lovely songs, its lowbrow silliness (yes, there's a "Sal Manella" joke that elicits happy groans), and its great performers. The one thing not to say is "I haven't seen it."