It was billed as a cross between “Downton Abbey” and “Gilligan’s Island,” but “A Proper Place,” the all-new musical that just had its world premiere on Village Theatre’s stage in Issaquah, is so much more. While sprinkling in plenty of romance and comedy, the show manages to present an examination of Edwardian class distinction and feminism, all to the tune of catchy new songs.
We find ourselves in 1902 Mayfair, the ritziest area of London, at the grand home of Lord Loam (Hugh Hastings), his three daughters, Lady Mary (Chelsea LeValley), Lady Catherine (Sarah Bordenet) and Lady Agatha Lasenby (Krista Curry), and their extensive and strictly hierarchical staff of servants — all performing their tasks under the watchful eye of the butler, Mr. Crichton (Kevin Vortmann), who keeps everyone in their “proper place.”
The Lasenbys set out on a sailing voyage on the family yacht with Lord Loam’s snooty nephew, the Honorable Ernest Woolley (Randy Scholz), and family friend, the Rev. Treherne (David Caldwell). However, when the when the aristocrats become marooned on an island along with Crichton and kitchen maid Tweeny (Sophia Franzella), everyone must band together to survive, prompting a hilarious dismantling of the rigid class system.
After living in not only relative simplicity but also relative equality on the island for two years, the castaways are rescued. But how will the Lasenbys and their servants adjust to life back in England after such a different lifestyle on the island? And what will happen to budding inter-class romances?
The musical, directed by Jerry Dixon, represents the fulfilment of a decades-long dream for writers Leslie Becker (lyrics) and Curtis Rhodes (music). The duo first came up with the idea to write a musical based on the J.M. Barrie play “The Admirable Crichton” over 23 years ago, but set the project aside because they did not know how well Americans would take to a story that involved such an understanding of British society.
However, in 2013, as “Downton Abbey” was taking the U.S. by storm, Becker and Rhodes turned their attention back to their script, believing that the time was right to introduce a musical period drama about the English nobility. It seems they were right — they submitted the play in Village’s Festival of New Musicals, and the theatre chose it for its 2016-2017 season.
“It’s a real acknowledgement that creativity doesn’t have a timeline,” Becker told the Reporter in February.
By showing the way that master and servant switch roles on the island, “A Proper Place” critiques the societal constraints of 1902 Britain. When the aristocrats are at a loss for how to find food and shelter on an uninhabited island, it is the servants who bring forth the survival skills, and in doing so, set themselves up as leaders. This demonstrates that it is not a lack of skills or smarts that has separated the upper-crust from the commoners, but simply an accident of birth.
Additionally, there is a feminist element to the show. In England, the three Lasenby ladies are the picture of female submission, careful not to put a toe out of line for the sake of propriety. Being shipwrecked, however, brings out a different side in the women, in particular in Lady Mary. When Act II opens, gone is the elegant noblewoman, and in her place is a leather trouser-wearing, Katniss Everdeen-like warrior woman (complete with bow, arrows and side-braid).
“She ends up becoming this athletic, fierce hunter, in touch with her feelings,” Rhodes described.
While it might have been nice to see some of the character development that takes place during the two years that elapse conveniently during intermission, it is nevertheless a welcome and empowering change in the formerly stiff and reserved Lady Mary.
“Leslie and Curtis have done a wonderful job of reframing the original [J. M. Barrie] story to have a narrative that promotes the strength of women and [Mary’s] growth in finding herself … She’s able to be a powerful woman, both in actions and spirit,” LeValley said.
It is Lady Mary’s newly-discovered boldness that enables her to change the course of her future. Thanks to this character development, we are left on the edge of our seats, unsure how the story will end until literally the last five seconds of the show.
“You see in Lady Mary someone who isn’t afraid to question men,” Vortmann said. “At the end of the play, she is the catalyst for the resolution. Crichton needs her to embolden him.”
Rhodes and Becker have created a score of swooping orchestra music and big, bombastic tunes befitting the time period and conveying the intensity of the characters’ emotions. As LeValley beautifully belts “Alive” a person can’t help but feel Lady Mary’s joy at her newfound freedom, and love songs “I Wonder” and “If I Had Known,” given life by the rich voices of LeValley and Vortmann, help develop the romance at the core of the show.
Rhodes described the score as having “a lot of classical influence,” with songs inspired by “British music halls, Leonard Bernstein, Rachmaninoff, and Gilbert and Sullivan.”
Not a detail was spared in the intricate set pieces, which instantaneously transport viewers to the location of each scene, whether an Edwardian sitting room or a tropical shore — and sometimes both at the same time, thanks to the use of an ingenious black screen.
Especially of note are the neoclassical columns, reaching from the top of the curtain to the stage, and the equally-high jungle trees, which take a person around the world with a simple slide across the stage. The set even includes both the interior and exterior of the grass hut that the Lasenbys and their servants call home on the island.
The costumes worn on the island, designed to look like they are made of leaves, grass and animal hide, do a wonderful job of showing just what kind of materials would have been at the castaways’ disposal.
The detailed costumes and set completely make up for the show’s minor errors, such as a servant slipping into an upper-class British accent or a lady’s maid at one point being called by her first name, rather than her last.
What is perhaps most notable about the musical, however, is the fact that the male lead was only brought in five days before opening night.
After the original Crichton, James D. Sasser, was injured in the eleventh hour, Vortmann, who just finished “The Pajama Game” at the 5th Avenue Theatre, was brought in to take his place.
“I received a phone call on March 13 asking if I was available. I had to be in the show by Saturday evening (March 18),” Vortmann described. “I jumped in headfirst; we hit the ground running … It took a village, pun intended.”
For LeValley, getting the chance to go back to square one and mesh together with a new actor was a wonderful experience.
“To get to return to the first day of rehearsal … to discover new moments [with Crichton] was exhilarating,” she said. “It informed the show … having a new person to listen to, to make discoveries with.”
And for Vortmann, the newness of the show has made the performing process a fun challenge.
“It keeps things exciting,” he said. “I learn something new every show.”
“A Proper Place” runs Wednesdays through Sundays and select Tuesdays through April 23 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, located at 303 Front St. N., Issaquah. For tickets, call the box office at 425-392-2202 or visit http://www.villagetheatre.org/issaquah/a-proper-place.php.