Friday, December 19, 2008

THE LUCKY JADE

A misnomer of a title (because it's anything but lucky!), THE LUCKY JADE (1929) has a curious set of credits on the cover. The book was written by Joseph Harrison but "adapted" by Edward Bradley. Harrison also provided authorship of the lyrics in tandem with the seemingly indefatigable Don Wilson, who also wrote the score. As is the case with these little works, there's no information available about Harrison or Bradley.

We start this work with a brief prologue, to give the audience some background as to the mysterious piece of jade that figures so prominently in the plot-to-be. In a "voo-doo temple somewhere in darkest Africa", we see a pair of priests guarding a large solid-jade idol. There's a temple dancer, who gets a smattering of music before a "trader" (as he's listed) forces his way in, kills the priests, kills the temple dancer, then cuts one of the ears off the idol "and holds it aloft, laughing", as the curtain lowers for a moment.

Suddenly we're transported to a graceful Southern mansion where a fox-hunting party is in full swing. The cacaphony is interrupted by the news that Mary Ann, a "daughter of the Sunny South", is returning from a trip to Manhattan. Much merriment ensues, but the question mark remains: did John, her never-stated-but-surely-must-be-her beau meet her at the docks when her boat arrived? (Okay, point of order: the house is in Virginia. Surely they had trains?) An elderly renter, Downs, makes a few aimless jokes about not being a century plant, then tells three young bucks the secret of his success with the ladies: his uncanny ability to get a divorce:

I have started forth to woo
As all the other young man do
Some maiden fair of beauty rare
To be my cooing dove
But after years of matrimony
Now I'm paying alimony
All my extra spending money
Goes to former wives

I'll wager since I've told you this
Youll never leave your single bliss
A maiden's heart is like a blushing rose
Her affections changed by every breeze that blows
Tho she swears that she loves only you
With suspicion view each promise new
That in the future she'll be true

Hope you were making notes because that song is just riddled with foreshadowing.

Okay, it seems John didnt meet Mary at the docks. Bad move. His bashfulness will certainly get him in very hot water, and he's able to make a quick exit only moments before the lady herself gets her grand entrance... and not alone. While in New York, she met the dashing Horace Ferguson, who has intentions on her, and the very French Fanchon, who serves as her new maid (much to the ire of the house "mammy" Liza). John is almost forcibly dragged back on by Colonel Waverly, his uncle, and is none too pleasantly introduced to Ferguson."He's a tin horn sport with patent leather hair," John opines, "and a hoodlum. I'll bet he's from Chicago."

Well, in the midst of all this domestic drama, Liza brings out the Lucky Jade (Somehow, she's the great-grandaughter of one of the priests killed in the temple, but how she got it from the trader is a plot point never discussed) so she can tell Mary's fortune.

Mumbo, Jumbo, come back spirits, come back hants, come back to Mammy Liza. Ooooo... ah sees trouble. Ah sees money and a paper with a red seal. Ah sees a girl, an' ah hears guns, an' ah sees a man fall, then ah sees mo' money, a lot mo' money...

... which of course gets Ferguson's attention immediately (Oops, did we just give away something?). He makes a none-too-discrete inquiry about the piece of jade and offers to buy it "as a souvenir", but Downs discovers that that piece of jade is worth a thousand pounds to the British Museum.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann has ripped John a new one for not meeting her as promised. He responds by telling her, in a rush, that Ferguson is a bounder, not worthy of touching her hand. Nevertheless, she finds herself curiously attracted to a man who was, only seconds ago, "so brutal". But she's only momentarily distracted by that because now, if life werent so awful enough, the sheriff has shown up with a notice of foreclosure (Why, you ask? It's complicated), but the Colonel convinces him to wait on serving it until after the party they're having that evening. And if that werent enough, the Lucky Jade has been stolen! And you know what that means! Just all sorts of horrible things!

Still, a party's a party, so when the curtain rises on Act Two, everyone is having a swell time at this masquerade party Mary Ann is throwing to celebrate her own return home. Colonel Waverly accuses Downs of having stolen the jade, and when Ferguson intercedes, the Sheriff notices something "familiar" about him. Well, it seems Downs *has* stolen it, but at Ferguson's insistence -- and yet Downs, who knows about the reward money, has no intention of giving it to him. Still, Ferguson does manage to get it (through a singularly bizarre party game) and is almost ready to bolt when John accuses him of taking it (much to Mary Ann's ire at his insulting her "guest"). John decides to settle this in true Southern fashion: a duel.

Ah, but it gets even murkier: Ferguson has been working this so he and Fanchon can run off together (the cad!). John finds Ferguson and challenges him; Ferguson's insistent reply is that he "never miss(es)". And Mary Ann, the bubblehead, has listened to the entire exchange and never caught on.

Well, no one said operetta heroines were especially bright.

A storm hits, and everyone heads for their cars to drive home. Waiting for the party to disperse, John and Ferguson eye each other (with additional reminders that Horace never misses). John leaves to make final arrangements for their encounter, and Ferguson suddenly tries to bolt, confessing to the Sheriff that he's never shot a gun before. (The Sheriff doesnt seem especially concerned.)

John finds Mary Ann and sings her a little farewell. And Mary Ann finally realizes she's in love with him too.

And now he's going to get killed. Supposedly. Although we know he wont.

Arrgghh.

Well, turns out the bridge has been washed out, so everyone in the party comes back. Just as the duel is to take place, Downs proves Ferguson stole the jade -- and naturally Ferguson is happy to have the law take him away so he doesnt get shot. But wait! It turns out that John isnt just the Colonel's nephew: he's also the heir to the Frazier millions, more than enough to save the plantation from foreclosure. Somehow in all this, the bridge has been rebuilt, because the party all reprise their song about leaving, only moments before we make our escape as well.

If anything saves this piece, it's -- as usual -- the music. The script just reels from one plot point to another, utilizing every possible cliché... which I guess can be overlooked, since it is from 1929 and was no doubt inspired by the early film musicals. Aside from one truly funny scene between Fanchon and Mammy (in which the former rattles away in très perfect French while the latter is giving her what-for in her best mock-Southern-black), everything else just seems piled on, with every stock character you can imagine and with the chorus almost shoved on and off not so much by obligation of plot as expedience to give the heroine time and space to sing another solo. This becomes almost glaringly obvious during the final scenes, in which they're treated much like a bunch of chess pawns sprawled across the board.

The score, on the other hand, is a fun little romp, with fox trots and two rather charming ballads and the obligatory waltz. There's also a broadly sketched hint of Gilbert and Sullivan ("Maidens Yield", which almost feels written for, and jettisoned from, Iolanthe) and a very tricky little trio for our love triangle ("Three's a Crowd", which must have driven music directors crazy in rehearsal because of its convoluted structure).

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