We all know that summer entertainment is traditionally light and fluffy rather than dense and chewy. In theaters, that usually means it’s romantic comedy time, but this summer, most of our locals seem to have gone slightly off message. Performance Network’s Becky Shaw was comic but dark. Ann Arbor Civic Theatre offered Chess the Musical, for anyone who couldn’t find a shuffleboard tournament, or who had run out of paintbrushes to clean. Am I being mean? Reportedly the creators of this 1980s musical (Tim Rice and some of ABBA) knew chess is boring, and their title was ironic. But it is a musical about chess. If there’s an eternity, or a hell, I might see it, but not until.
Purple Rose, though, splendidly hit that romantic comedy target right in the kisser. It takes about zero brain cells to watch. It’s the classic boy-meets-girl-etc. story. Miles and Ellie are the happy couple, though they spend all but about five minutes of their time on stage not being a couple. That will be a plot spoiler to anyone out there who has never heard the phrase “romantic comedy.” And may I compliment playwright Don Zolidis (White Buffalo) for putting no vampires in it? Sheer genius!
Not 100 percent straightforward, Miles and Ellie has some cute postmodern nips and tucks. Ellie, who is in high school in Act I and an unhappy divorcee in Act 2, occasionally retreats to the side of the stage and narrates, voice-over style, the scene that is about to take place. Then, after the scene is acted out, she sometimes confesses that it didn’t really happen that way, backtracks, and the real scene ensues. One of those phony scenes is the “State Fair montage.” Here we see them falling in love, with all of its stations of the cross: the winning of the biggest stuffed animal, the falling into each others’ arms, the slow-motion triumphant lift into the air, like they’re suddenly a couple of ice dancers.
Even better–though this, the best line of the play, went by too quickly to get much of a laugh the night I saw it–Ellie casually says to Miles a few scenes later, “Remember when we had that montage at the fair?” I wanted to give them a standing ovation for that.
The timing of this light and sweet piece is mostly honed to the nanosecond, and who knows why that line didn’t quite get its due on that particular night. Miles and Ellie fits the Purple Rose ensemble like it was written for them, especially Michelle Mountain. Mountain has been overworked in daffy, comic roles, but here, in the second act, with wineglass ever in hand and a family history to cover up, that dippy looseness of hers suddenly gains a depth. Now I am in danger of giving away too much. Miles and Ellie is romantic comedy worth turning off the TV for.