The People vs. Mona is a neat musical divertissment. On the flimsy surface, it's a courtroom mystery with a bluesy feel, but at heart, it's just a bunch of quirky characters having a grand ole time, and if you go, that's exactly what you'll have.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
The show might be called The People vs. Mona, but I doubt you'll find many people who don't fall in love with her hokey small-town charms. Tippo, Georgia might be filled with "gators and gospel," but what you'll remember from Jim Wann and Patricia Miller's lighthearted hit are the characters, and perhaps a few of the bluegrass (or perhaps "green"grass) numbers from the "McGnat" brothers (Ritt Henn, Jason Chimonides, and Dan Baily), a nice southern-fried trio that keeps even the most mundane of courtroom ordeals (swearing in, for one) lyrically aloft.
After a brief introduction to Tippo from our narrator, defense attorney, and straight man Jim Summerford (the pleasant Richard Binder), the play leaps from the neon-lit confines of Mona's Frog Pad bar to the oaken bench of the country courthouse, run by the hoochie- and coochie-less Judge Ella Jordan. The quick pace is designed to keep the witnesses and their songs a coming, self-parodying backup dancers and all, and it works: the lyrics aren't all that clever or catchy, but the antics of former kitten dancer Tish Thomas and Blind "They Call Me Blind Because I Can't See" Willy (a saucy and spry Marcie Henderson), or the lecherous Euple R. Pugh and sincerely happy motel owner Patel (a well-ranged Omri Schein) are.
As for our central characters, Wann and Miller go with the tried and true tale of new romance: Jim falls out of love with his pushy fiancée, the prosecutor Mavis Frye (Karen Culp), and into love with his client, the guiltily innocent Mona (Mariand Torres). Binder is appropriate stuck between Culp's high energy and Torres's low jazz, and the melodies seem to extend from the characters, with country songs like "A Real Defense," or the gospel showdown of bible passages in "You Done Forgot Your Bible" right up there with the sultry jazz of "Partner," the blues of "Lockdown Blues," or the marching band anthems of "Marching Thru Tippo." There's even a bit of operatic emoting, courtesy of the honestly awkward Officer Bell (a resonant David Jon Wilson).
Considering the play's not meant to be taken seriously, Kate Middleton does a surprisingly deft job of staging the cast of ten. Her work often takes a backseat to the choreography from Jill Gorrie, but the overall atmosphere is all hers, and the reason her actors nail so many of the jokes is because she doesn't emphasize them. The People vs. Mona is a smooth ride, right down to the clever confession scene, in which all the actors run through their key lines so that Jim can try to piece things together in his mind. The only thing really missing is the sense of southern heat: the play is so light that it never works up a sweat, nor gets the audience all atwitter.
Then again, with the sweltering weather outside, maybe a nice cool glass of clever, character-based musical comedy is just what the doctor ordered. The People vs. Mona is a taste of southern hospitality, in lyrical form: so go get you some.
Abingdon Theatre (312 W 36th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $20.00
Performances (through 8/4): Tuesday-Saturday @ 8:30; Sunday @ 2:30
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.