It’s easy to label any show about the Great Depression as a timely revival. The Finborough Theatre recently presented Arthur Miller’s unrelentingly pessimistic verbatim play The American Clock, which suggested that there really is no hope. Fortunately, John Kander and Fred Ebb, who went on to write the brilliantly bitter Chicago and Cabaret, don’t share such a bleak view. Flora the Red Menace was the duo’s first show together in 1965 and also marked a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli’s Broadway debut; it only played 87 performances but earned Minnelli a Tony. This was my first visit to Walthamstow’s Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre and, some ropey vocal performances aside, the production is of equal standard to work that I’ve seen at the Landor and Union, and the piece itself is more than a piece of theatrical archaeology, showing that Kander and Ebb had a subversive edge reminiscent of Weill and Brecht from the beginning.
In his Director’s note, Randy Smartnick argues that the reason why Flora isn’t held in particularly high regard is because the show has always taken itself too seriously. Smartnick’s light touch doesn’t let politics dominate the show; it’s one of the strands in Flora’s journey of self-discovery. It’s perfectly suited to a young company, being an engaging story with a delightful score and easy-to-root-for characters. Ebb’s lyrics tap into the insecurities and worries that young people are experiencing today surprisingly well, particularly the frustration of being hardworking, well-educated and talented but still unable to get a start in a career.
Flora Mezaros (Hungarian) is the lynchpin of an artists’ co-operative of designers, musicians and dancers (that’s one way of getting a tap number into a political musical). Spending her days in waiting rooms being patronised by shrewish secretaries, she meets the gangly, stammering aspiring artist Harry Toukarian (Armenian), who persuades her to join the Communist Party as “Everyone’s a communist these days”. When Flora lands her dream job as a fashion illustrator with a department store, capitalism and communism inevitably come into conflict, while a love triangle forms when the glacial communist femme fatale Comrade Charlotte decides she wants Harry for herself.
Once I removed my Liza-tinted spectacles, I was won over by Katy Baker’s performance as the generous and vivacious heroine. Baker’s Flora has hair to match her politics and she sensibly doesn’t try to mimic Minnelli’s mannerisms. The lovely song ‘A Quiet Thing’ shows how preternaturally wise she is in some ways and inexperienced in others, and she cries real mascara-streaked tears in the eleven o’clock number ‘Sing Happy’. The cast works well together, playfully switching between multiple roles. Sam Linscott stutters endearingly as the zealous Harry and Ellen Vereniekes is quite the hard-bitten ice queen as Charlotte, who uses the Party as a vehicle for her own vanity.
Morals can be annoyingly preachy but this paean to individuality in which Flora has to learn that she “can’t be everything to everybody” retains its ring of truth. The bittersweet ending reminded me of what Maria tells Liesl in The Sound of Music: “You cry a little and then you wait for the sun to come out. It always does.”
Flora the Red Menace plays at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre until June 1 2012. For more information and tickets, please visit the website.