As long as there is new money, there will be belly laughs to spare at the expense of Molire's Monsieur Jourdain, the title character in The Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Like Ralph Cramden with a winning lottery ticket in his hand, Jourdain's enduring comic escapades as the wannabe gentleman give some much-needed insight into that elusive French sense of humor that baffled the world for centuries, even before Jerry Lewis.
No one born after the French Revolution could ever know what real happiness was, according to Maupassant. Theatreworks offers the next best thing, chartering a time trip back to the era of Louis XIV. The play -- a command composition from the king, who wanted an entertainment featuring dance, music and theater -- is part celebration of the Baroque arts, part satirical revenge on an underappreciative group of visiting Turks and the very smallest part plot -- the barest bones of a story to serve as an excuse for the extended shenanigans set to the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully.
The story, in a fancy roasted nutshell, is concerned with Jourdain's efforts to use his new financial success to emulate "the people of quality." Molire lampoons the upwardly-mobile middle class of his day, thrusting his hero into a sequence of scenes with experts in music, dance, fencing, philosophy and fashion. Each subsequent master is another opportunity for Jourdain to parry his comic foolery against the cultural artistry of his tutors and guests. The semblance of a plot creeps in when his daughter wants to marry a man Jourdain believes is socially inferior, setting up a second act full of more song and dance in the guise of Turkish royalty as Jourdain's son-in-law-to-be assumes the role of the son of the Sultan.
Theatreworks brings the play to UCCS fresh from a stint in New York, where they collaborated on a production with the New York Baroque Dance Society and the Concert Royal. The polished ensemble cast is joined by a new troupe of dancers and a chorus of singers from Palmer High School. Though billed as a mere "glimpse" of the New York production, the performance is feast for the eyes and ears, an authentic celebratory immersion in a world that thought of itself as living and breathing culture.
The early scenes are carried by stirring singing from Connie Heidenreich and graceful dancing from Jennifer Cardinal, Ricardo Guy and Stephanie Herman. The 16-member chorus from Palmer High School maintains the high standards that set up their performance as singing Turks with impressive comic instincts. The onstage ambience is maintained by a four-piece orchestra, featuring bassoon, double recorders and harpsichord, subtly warming the audience to the incidental music.
Christopher Lowell leads the cast as Jourdain, the perpetual punch line at the hands of the snickering ensemble. Lowell works overtime to keep up with the endless onslaught of physical comedy, rising to the challenge of playing the fall guy without reducing himself to mere clownery. Lowell's Jourdain is pure buffoon, but he maintains the necessary shred of nave dignity that allows the audience to remain affably in his corner.
Other notable performances include James Childress, mugger extraordinaire, as Cleonte, the would-be son-in-law. Childress spends the better part of the second act disguised as the son of the Sultan, unleashing gorganizing glares to cut through the language barrier. Michael Preston is a drill sergeant of a fencing master and Bob Pinney is even more incendiary as the philosophy teacher.
The real standouts in this production, however, are the designers. In particular, scenic designer Charles Berendt turned Jourdain's affluent French home into a stunning recreation of Baroque elegance, complete with four layers of depth on the stage, beautiful faux marble columns leading to the wings, and an understated checkered floor pattern with an elaborate emblem inlaid at its center. Berendt transforms Dwire Hall into the enviable epitome of the class for cash Jordain is seeking, inviting the audience to indulge in the whimisical fantasy.