Saturday, July 5, 2008

OH DOCTOR!

Estelle Merrymon Clark, the author and lyricist of this work, must have been the Richard Rodgers of high school musicals in the 1930s and 40s. Little can be found about her on either Google or Wikipedia, but her name shows up several times, usually along with Palmer John Clark (who I assume to be her husband), in various catalogues from the major publishers of the time. In the main, her scripts are convoluted, sometimes bizarrely twisted tales with too many plots and too many characters.

Then you get OH DOCTOR!

(WARNING: some of what follows will be seen as culturally insensitive. I will underscore now that this play is just a product of its time and should be viewed as such.)

OH DOCTOR! (1931) takes place in what used to be called "sanitariums" and what we would now call "rehab centres". Located somewhere in New Mexico, Drinkwater Sanitarium is world-renown for the curative capabilities of its water -- as such, every patient who comes in is put on a strict water-only diet, as meted out by the esteemed physicians, Doctors Slaughter, Cuttem, and Coffin, who dont seem to understand why patients keep dying. It's arguably a good thing that such regimens are not available to our current HMOs.

The head of this facility, Doctor Drinkwater, has disowned his only son because the lad married an actress; since then, he's not set eyes on either the son, his wife, or their daughter. Naturally, this causes his granddaughter Glory no small amount of concern because she's (1) (here it comes) an actress herself and (2) engaged to a man whose father was a life-long friend of the doctor himself.

Yes, it's a small world after all in high school operettas.

But because Glory is supposed to be off to South America to make a movie, and because her grandfather has never seen her before and probably never will again, she sends her best friend Honor to impersonate her. Why, you may ask? Simple (uh, right, as if *anything* is simple here): Drinkwater's wife (that's Glory's grandmother, okay?) died and said in her will that her granddaughter would receive a buncha cash on the proviso that she spend the last 24 hours before her 21st birthday with her grandfather, in some kind of strange hope that this dysfunctional family can be put back together before they all appear on the 1930s equivalent of the Jerry Springer Show.

Now, for reasons known only to Estelle Merrymon Clark, Bob (the fiance, remember), who would normally be in Los Angeles, just happens to be visiting Drinkwater, specifically, to talk to the doctor about his engagement to Glory.

Except Glory, in the current production, is being played by Honor.

And Bob doesnt know that.

Merriment and mayhem ensue.

To clue Bob in on her little charade, Glory (who still hasnt made an entrance yet, and we're about halfway through Act One) sends him a letter at the sanitarium, which would be fine except that the letter has been intercepted by the janitor and all-around go-fer guy, Rainbow. (Why is he called Rainbow? Because -- here's the joke -- he's coloured! Yuk. Yuk. Yuk.) Rainbow cant read or write so he has no idea who the letter is for, and you can imagine how much *that* plot device gets milked.

Ah, but there's more. A local ranchman named Philip is on the lookout for a notorious Mexican cattle rustler named Manuel. Philip's grandfather and Dr. Drinkwater had a long-standing feud, so Philip isnt really allowed on the grounds. But he is anyway, so there we are -- and by doing so, he sees Honor and is immediately smitten. *However*, he intercepts the letter from Glory (whom he thinks is Honor, remember) and gets all jealous that Bob is Honor's fiance, while Bob's actually Glory's fiance, and... well, it just gets worse from there.

But happily enough, everything is resolved in (once again) a few pages of dialogue and a few songs, and everyone dances and sings in contagious enthusiasm as the doctor, Glory, Bob, Honor, Philip, even Manuel -- oh hell, everyone -- heads for South America to make a film.

What makes this particular work so interesting, amoung other things, is the hit-the-audience-with-a-bludgeon-how-funny-we-are trio of Drs. Slaughter, Cuttem, and Coffin, who, along with their patients, Mss. Crossly and Weakly, get the title song, a strange burlesque waltz that pre-shadows Sweeney Todd's "Little Priest". I have no doubt that, when staged, this little bit surely must have been one of the evening's more demented moments. Perhaps not quite as bizarre but just as much coming from left field is a ballet sequence in the first act that sets up the backstory of the life-preserving waters, one that evokes Hebe, the cupbearer of the gods, a weary pilgrim, a few water nymphs, and a couple of other folk from Mt. Olympus. How they got to New Mexico is anyone's guess.

The part of Rainbow is, as you might assume, played completely for comic effect, and I have no doubt that the role was usually assumed by a white actor in blackface, given how schools operated in the time and how the character is bestowed with such lines as:

"Ah does'n know what's de mattah wid it mam, but ah knows a man what comed hyere once what had a bercolousesess, yassum, an aff'ah dey rinched an' drunked an' swummed 'im outside an eternal, den dey say, "now he's got two bercolousesess." Yassum, an dat man he dies, an dey buried 'im. Umph, umph, ain' dat sompin'?"

Coffin, incidently, speaks with a lisp, suggestive that Clark meant him to be a parody of a gay man. But unless there's something in the stage manager's handbook to verify that, it's only a guess. It's also possible his accent is to suggest some gothic East European overtone a la Dracula.

For something so outlandishly weird, the score is quite amazing: Palmer Clark takes advantage of every ensemble number to throw in as much parts singing as possible: both the first *and* second act finales have no less than six harmonic vocal lines running simultaenously. Not including the vocal work that precedes it, the "Birth of Spring" ballet goes on for six pages, when the norm those days for a dance number was one, perhaps two. There is a direct segue from a Vienna-goes-country drinking song to a hymn honouring the Angelus.

All in all, this is one of those shows where it seems everyone gets to chow down on the scenery at least once or twice, and I'd bet it could be done as is today (even Rainbow, which is so completely over the top that any possible offensiveness is mitigated as a result). You can definitely see its roots in the equally inane Broadway musicals of the 1920s, and a revival, played completely and utterly for camp and with a slightly expanded scoring of some of the numbers, would no doubt be just as entertaining as it was in 1931, if not far more so.

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