THE THREE MARIES: A PHILADELPHIA PHABLE is part My Fair Lady, part Dirty Dancing, part Cinderella, and mostly fun with a Philly accent. The silliness is performed by some very talented Philadelphia stage stalwarts and several talented newcomers, all of whom had a great time murdering the English language and educating Romanian royalty in how to do the Broad Street Mummers Strut.
The story begins in a Mummer’s clubhouse on Dock Street in 1926, the year when the real Queen Marie of Romania visited the United States with a stop in Philadelphia.
Little Marie (Rachel Brennan) is a working girl, much to her family’s dismay—they would rather see her married—who can’t seem to get ahead because of her accent. When a friendly telephone operator helps “de-dialect” her, she suddenly becomes capable of making all the arrangements for the Queen’s visit, including a ball at the Bellevue Stratford Hotel, today’s Bellevue Hotel.
Meanwhile her Mummer father, Al of Dock Street (Josh Totora), and his friends have a problem. They can’t compete in an upcoming competition because they don’t have a theme and their accordion player Moon (Jeff Coon) is in the hoosegow. Nevertheless they help Little Marie out by making her a gown fit for a countess—or a Ziegfeld showgirl—so she can attend the ball herself.
Little Marie tries to share her new found linguistic abilities by teaching her mother, Big Marie (Kathy Deitch) how to pronounce “water,” and “I want a coke and a hoagie to go,” so she too can go to the ball. Coincidentally, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live, did a skit involving a Philly accent.
The second act takes place at the ball. Queen Marie of Romania (the inimitable Mary Martello) is a very cool Queen, while her cousin Count Frederick (Jeff Coon, who knows how to belt out a song) is a linguist with a passion for dialects (shades of Professor Henry Higgins). He also plays the accordion. Convenient coincidence, no?
Of course, true love can’t happen smoothly, and the outrageous Penny Wanapacker (Mindy Dougherty) does her best to intervene, even as she destroys the English language with delightful malapropisms, such as being “Mahlered by a tiger,” “admiral attentions,” and “reservoir” for “au revoir.”
The songs have a comfortable familiarity about them. Just as the story harkens back to multiple mythic rags to riches stories, so the songs start out as something we already know and then veer off into something else. One song is a kind of “Alphabet Song” rhyming Center City Philadelphia street names—Pine and Vine, for example—another the Mummer’s Strut with several ballads along the way.
A last minute change put the orchestra on stage, leaving an empty orchestra pit. The stage was built forward around it, creating, Ogborn says, the impression of walking around street corners.
Despite the fun, the story itself could use a bit more tweaking. Although we’re told it’s a romance, there’s no romantic intrigue in the first act—and Little Marie’s boss Mr. Waterhouse (Paul L. Nolan) having a mistress doesn’t qualify. When love does appear in the second act, it’s all a bit rushed, asking the audience to fill in the blanks and believe in happy endings. Overall, there’s not much at stake for the characters. Problems that do arise are quickly resolved, and the emphasis on the Philly accent, while amusing, takes precedence over what could be a stronger narrative arc.
The question of how this might play beyond the confines of Philadelphia is really irrelevant since the goal seems to be to have it as a Philly attraction. It’s not quite the Liberty Bell, but it does show a lighter side of the town.
A native of Philadelphia, Ogborn now splits his time between homes in Philly and Manhattan, with an appreciation for Philly’s recent transformation. He has plans to remount the show in the spring and says he hopes the town will take it to heart and keep it going.
[Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street] December 19, 20015-January 10, 2016; thethreemaries.com
THE THREE MARIES: A PHILADELPHIA PHABLE, Book, music and lyrics by Michael Osborn, Director/Choreographer Peter John-Rios, no Attytude productions LLC, contact (215) 422-4580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.