Sunday, December 7, 2008


Unlike earlier work mentioned here by the Clarks, this is more atypical fare for Estelle and Palmer: simple story, simple characters, simple show. And at the same time, this is so Verdian or Donizettian that it slides this over into the "opera" side of "operetta". RINGS IN THE SAWDUST (1925) has foundling children, thrilling adventure, lost documents, thwarted love, abduction... a little bit of everything (as is par for the course with this husband-and-wife team), with a sextet to boot. And yet at the same time, sadly, it has more than its share of missed opportunities.

We're on the grounds of a small-time traveling circus, owned by the stalwart (and, to be frank, sometimes stupid) Toby Dunn. He's secretly engaged to Sally Squeezem, the daughter of the town banker, who holds a mortgage on the circus. When the banker finds out about the engagement, he disowns his daughter and threatens Dunn with foreclosure.

At the same time, Widow Marybelle Jaybird (where did Estelle get these names?) and her busy-body sister Eliza Slimmer, spend most of the play running after Marybelle's son Willie, who takes a ride in the circus' balloon, then leads everyone on a mad chase through the woods, and finally climbs down the chimney of... well, you'll see.

Toby and Sally plot to have the banker abducted and sent to Marybelle's house (because she has this thing for him: Lord knows why) before he can serve the foreclosure. They're assisted in this by two roustabouts, Inky (who's "coloured") and Dinky (who's Irish), but the plan goes awry and Inky is packaged up for the widow instead.

Ah, but now we have a mystery, because when the banker goes home, he finds the mortgage papers missing. He suspects Sally, but the widow suggests Inky, who's arrested and taken to jail (with no evidence, but this is 1925 we're talking about, I guess). But we find out that Willie (remember him?) climbed down the banker's chimney and used the mortgage papers to wrap up some fruit he stole. Sally and Toby are forgiven. Inky is freed from jail. Marybelle gets her banker. And the curtain falls.

Truly, I'm amazed that Estelle Merrymon Clark got as much work as she did. It had to have been because she and her husband were a package deal, and Palmer was such a good composer that the publishers felt they could tolerate Estelle's inanity. This one is no exception: the overture begins with a classic circus march and glides almost effortlessly from one number to another, but the opening chorus is almost painful in its search for rhymes:

This is the day of days for us
This happy, sunny day in June
All the pretty girls you see about
Have waited since the hour of noon

We have money too, Mister Ticket Man
Money we have saved all year
All tied up in our little kerchief
I suppose a dollar near

See, now the sun shines in the sky
We have left our clover field
Rolling hills and meadows too
Happy with the joy they yield

... and so on and so on. I mean, there are lyrics in this art form that can be pretty awful, but Estelle truly takes it to a new low. Yet her script rises only marginally above them: exposition laid on with a shovel on the first two pages of dialogue, adorned with gaglines such as:

WIDOW. (speaking about her husband) But he was happy most of the time. His picture hangs on the wall where I can see it, and he's always smiling.

ELIZA. Hmmph! So glad he's dead.

(Insert rimshot here, I suppose.)

Ah, but this brings us to our first Donizetti moment. As the widow and Eliza are being catty with each other in front of the banker, Willie has run off and hidden in the balloon. Drama ensues:

CHORUS. See the balloon is in the sky
Now tis gliding swiftly by
See its banners dip and rise
Like a bird it proudly flies
Like a deer it seems to rest
On the mountains' snowy crest
Now it drops beneath their height
Fading, fading from our sight

WIDOW (breathlessly, to an agitato) Where is little Willie?
Oh where is my child?

ELIZA. With the balloon or the lions wild.

WIDOW. Oh little Willie, he's with that balloon.

BANKER. Never fear, Madam, we will find him soon.

WIDOW. Little Willie's in the sky
He'll be an angel bye and bye
Wonder if he'll learn to fly
Up in the sky?
Oh my! Oh my!

CHORUS. Little Willie's in the sky
He'll be an angel bye and bye
Wonder if he'll learn to fly
Up in the sky?
Oh my! Oh my!

Yikes. As for minor characters, you might have guessed that the two roustabouts are played for comic relief. Just as we saw with THE PENNANT, in which a Jew gets ridiculed, now's our time for a little Irish fun, although it's not as merciless as drawing as we've seen handed to blacks throughout this series. The dialogue for Dinky is written for laughs, although he gets a (relatively) lovely tenor song in Act Two (again, thanks more to Palmer than Estelle). But poor Inky. All he wants to do is leave the circus and his (unseen) harridan of a wife:

Oh dis am no place fo' a chile lak me
So ah's gwine right back to Afrikee
Wha' my ancestors libed so lovin' and free
An' dey's al buried by a bamboo tree

Ah'll get me a spear an' some fedders too
An ah knows ah'll surprise 'em, deed ah do.
Don ah'll get me a gal wid a ring in her nose
An' she'll danceroun' on her bare little toes

Blubbidy Blue! Jiggledy Gee!
Shinny, shinny up a coconut tree
An' we'll ance to the tune ob de jujube
When ah gets back to Afrikee

Second verse and chorus adds a dancing troop "dressed as Hottentots". But we're not done yet: RINGS IN THE SAWDUST is a veritable embarrassment of riches. Consider Eliza's solo turn in Act Two:

A busy body I cant abide
I always want to run and hide
When Missis Jones goes by
When Missis Jones goes by
She borrows everything they eat
From buttermilk to sausage meat
Sometimes I nearly die
Sometimes I nearly die

... continuing relentlessly for three more verses and an extended chorus, propped up once more by a score that serves such lyrics far more than they deserve, which seems to be the case of the entire piece, unfortunately. Add to that a script outline that doesnt come anywhere near exploring the potential of the storyline: the banker's botched "abduction", so supposedly important to the plot, takes a mere couple of pages, as if to say "Well, we got that plot point out of the way, huh?" and features a sextet musical number that screams for development and gets none. Cap it off with a resolution that you saw coming on page 3, and all in all, it's like a ticket to a side show booth: lots of promise outside the tent, laughably nothing inside.

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