By Perry Tannenbaum
Clyde Edgerton, Mike Craver, and Steve Umberger are all involved in the musical adaptation of Edgerton’s 2003 novel, Lunch at the Piccadilly. Umberger, the founder of Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 1976, is back as the producer/director of The Playworks Group, lovingly developing the piece, but there are a few other people onstage and behind the scenes whose names are in the marrow of the Queen City’s theatre heritage.
Besides Rebecca Koon, our leading senior lady at the Rosehaven old age home, we have Bob Croghan designing scenery and costumes, Linda Booth choreographing, Fred Story contributing sound design, John Coffey directing the music, and Eric Winkenwerder tweaking the lights. With Craver and two other cast members reprising roles from an earlier version of the show that I saw in Winston-Salem over four years ago, the musical continues to be a work-in-development. I’d like to say work-in-progress, but I’d be lying.
Lil Olive is a widowed homemaker who has fallen twice in recent months, stubbornly refusing to let go of her car keys and grab onto her walker. It’s her devoted nephew, Carl Turnage, who must tear Lil away from her beloved Kirby vacuum cleaner and check her into Rosehaven. Surprising even herself, she quickly takes a liking to the place, finding friendship and, soon afterwards, purpose and renewed value on the sunny front porch among the residents in their rocking chairs.
What Lil doesn’t find at Rosehaven is very much pushback against her initiatives and radical ideas. Carl is the only relative who visits, so there’s no great family disapproval. Anna Rhodes is the only caretaker we see, the daughter of Rosehaven’s benevolent founder, and she’s quickly won over by Lil – quickly won over by Carl when it comes to it. But he’s shy.
The only person we’re intended to take seriously as an antagonist is Dr. Ted Sears, the chancellor of a nearby Christian college who hopes to commandeer Rosehaven and repurpose it as a Christian geriatric department. Still considering whether she wishes to sell to Sears, but not seeing any better prospects for the future – and financially strapped right now – Anna harbors definite misgivings about the changes he has already decreed. But Sears isn’t there very much, and when he is, Edgerton takes more care to portray him as conceited and lecherous, less interested in Rosehaven than in getting under the skirt of a board member he’s wooing on his cell phone. He’s softer, more innocuous now than he was four years ago.
Edgerton is too intent on not doing stuff: not offending old age homes – excuse me, retirement and care facilities – not offending Christian colleges, not displaying intense emotions, and not having too many people scurrying around onstage. There’s nothing inherently wrong with conflating multiple characters in a novel into fewer stage actors or in the concept of a chamber musical. But at some point, artful economy can strangle the spirit of your novel and make a production stingy instead of simple.
On the occasions that Lil hosts her open-mic presentations, there’s no microphone, real or fake. Similarly, when she appears at a news conference that will be broadcast on local TV, nobody materializes to represent the media or tote a TV camera. At least two stagehands efficiently slide the screens on the set to transition us from one scene to the next, so there are bodies available for such duty, and there are also two musicians behind the set who might occasionally serve as extras.
There was already an iPod in the 2011 version, triggering the best comedy segment of Piccadilly, when the oldsters embrace hip-hop. The new version updates that to an iPhone, part of a technology update that strengthens the arc of the story a little. But what I said four years ago applies more than ever: Piccadilly isn’t intent on taking us far and is in no particular hurry to get there. The current version clocks in with ten minutes of additional running time, and though a song has been cut from the opening act, getting Lil to the home seemed longer to me the second time around.
Once we do get the gang together (after four songs now instead of six), Koon and the rest of Rosehaven’s quartet of “Porchers” succeed in charming us even when the meager plot isn’t exactly barreling forward. On “How Does a Glass Eye Work,” Koon teams up comically with Patricia L. Cucco, reprising her role as former librarian Clara Cochran. Nearly as funny is “The Safety Patrol,” a high school reminiscence done in low-key hootenanny style by Craver and Trip Plymale, returning to his role as the wheelchair-bound Rev. L. Ray Flowers.
Fancying herself a poet, Clara has her eccentricities for Cucco to feast on, but L. Ray and Lil are the true Rosehaven radicals. She’s the spark of the new thinking, founder of the open mic and the First Breakfast Club. Lil also puts forth the revolutionary idea of creating a co-op between their nursing home and the mostly vacant church building at the other end of the parking lot. L. Ray supplies the fire with his sermonizing oratory, hoping to spread the new concept of “nurches” (the church-nursing home combo) across America.
L. Ray seems mellower than he was in 2011, so there’s nothing toxic in the chemistry between Koon and Plymale as Lil and Rev Flowers inspire each other, but few people at Booth Playhouse wouldn’t be more comfy if Plymale were allowed to toss his horrid wig to the wings. Cosmetic enhancements also run counter to the attention Edgerton gives to the Rev’s decrepitude. He’s getting therapy for his leg, but once he’s done, he’s in jeopardy of losing his medical benefits and getting shipped down to the dreaded Shady Dell home down the road.
Edgerton puts a lot of senior issues on his plate, but the complexities and absurdities of Medicaid are probably what he handles best. Wisely, he’s moved L. Ray’s dark “Tunnel Song” deep into Act 2, adding some much-needed gravitas. We must also navigate the slow-blooming romance between Anna and Carl while she’s preoccupied with the fate of Rosehaven and he’s worried about settling his aunt into her new life and taking away her car keys. Common cause eventually unites them.
We might get a more forceful satire if these young people complicated their elders’ lives a little more, but Edgerton doesn’t go so far in sketching their benevolence that they ever upstage the old folks. Mary Mossberg and Greg King are asked to be wholesome, and they are, with beautiful voices well-suited for their empathetic, innocuous ballads. Beau Stroupe gets decent comedy mileage crooning about Dr. Sears’ longed-for “Geraldine,” but his dramatic impact has been reduced to a couple of pouts.
If the darker aspects of growing old at Rosehaven don’t depress you, the light-hearted charms of these elders will win you over. With so many Charlotte theatre greats involved, I can certainly recommend Piccadilly to longtime theatergoers for old times’ sake. But Edgerton and Umberger will need to work harder at resuscitating the heart and point of their story before I can fully recommended it for old-timers’ sake.
Postscript: After reading the original novel, I have to admit that my presumptions about Edgerton’s stage adaptation of Lunch at the Piccadilly were completely wrong. Far from strangling the spirit of the novel, the musical infuses fresh life and spirit into both the characters and the moribund plot of the book. Just not enough.