Nov. 18 2015 11:45 AM

‘Stage Door’ is expansive, but lacks focus

MSU Department of Theatre’s latest production, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s “Stage Door,” features what is probably the most elaborate and expansive set design ever put together for the Pasant Theatre stage. For this play, set in the mid-1930s, the crew built a sprawling boarding house for aspiring young female actors called the Footlights Club that houses some 20 aspiring actresses. Kudos to Elspeth Williams and her mentor, Alex van Blommestein. The set dressing is an eclectic array of quaint and unusual period artifacts — additional kudos to Peter Verhaeghe.

The women of the house prance and dance, slink and slither, posture incessantly and espouse opinions on a variety of only vaguely interesting small-talk conversation topics: men, dating, parts on stage they have gotten or not gotten. Much detail of these conversations, unfortunately, is lost in the cavernous Pasant Theatre. Voices didn't project clearly, nor did one get much of the texture of conversation. Midway through the first act, there is a pivotal moment in which two of the women finally articulate a big idea — discussing whether theater work on stage is a more worthy endeavor than Hollywood acting. The second act warms up somewhat, with a more extensive expository on this theme.

Eventually, we figure out that the lead character is Terry, played by Madelayne Shammas. She shows some grit, spark and animation, but not nearly enough to fill up the room and captivate the audience.

There are too many small parts in this production, and it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is who or what the focus and intent of the scene might be. Many actors adopt the staccato, rat-a-tat style of the Hollywood movies of the ‘30s. Charming, to be sure, but projecting neither authenticity nor unique characterizations. All actresses are dressed — and undressed —in astonishingly elaborate attire for starlets who have not made the big time. There are too many costume changes to count, including more than a few (hopefully fake) ermine furs.

As a historic piece, this play attempts to show some of the challenges for women in the ‘30s. A good intent, but it doesn’t deliver. The few scenarios set up to highlight that dynamic do not sell well — they are too short and have too many throwaway lines. Billed as a comedy/drama, the Friday night performance was met with a small and very quiet audience. The one time there was laughter, it was an inappropriate response to a very serious statement.

MSU’s talented theater students moved well on and off the stage, yet few projected qualities that would make them serious candidates for the Great White Way. A smaller, focused production with meatier roles might have given them a better chance to shine.

“Stage Door”

MSU Department of Theatre 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18-Thursday, Nov. 19; 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 20; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22 (Nov. 19 show will feature a post-show discussion.) $17/$15 seniors and faculty/$12 students. Pasant Theatre, Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000, whartoncenter.com

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