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Thoughtful 'Ballyhoo' Worth Making a Fuss Over
Theater Review by Julio Martinez, The Daily News

After an auspicious debut last year in its new 276-seat Burbank Center Stage home, the venerable Colony Theatre Company has launched its 26th season with a captivating production of "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," Alfred Uhry's 1997 Tony Award-winning look at a genteel Southern Jewish family on the eve of World War II.

Director Scott Segall and an outstanding ensemble have achieved an admirable balance of style and substance in their depiction of the charm-laden Freitag family of Atlanta, Jews of German descent who have assimilated so deeply into Southern white society they look down on more recently emigrated Middle and Eastern European Jews who actually practice their culture and religion. The Freitags and their peers have refined the structure of anti-Semitism to the point where they have their own country club, which excludes those Jews whose European ancestry comes from "east of the Elba (River)."

Uhry has created an awe-inspiring menagerie of WASP-imitators. Set in 1939 during the Christmas (not Hanukkah) holidays, the big news in the home of successful industrialist Adolph Freitag (played by Blaise Messinger) is the impending Atlanta premiere of "Gone With the Wind" and the upcoming annual Jewish society shindig known as Ballyhoo, not the distant and insignificant fact that Hitler's troops have invaded Poland.

Adolph presides over a household of women, including his two middle-age widowed sisters, happy but clueless Reba (Leslie Bartlett) and ravenously upwardly mobile Boo (Judy Walstrum), as well as Boo's gauche-to-the-extreme college dropout daughter Lala (Randi Lynne Weidman) and Reba's attractive and level-headed daughter, Sunny (Mia Wesley).

Into this well-settled, unquestioning environment comes Uncle Adolph's new employee, Brooklyn-born Joe Farkas (Gil Bernardi), whose whole life has been steeped in the Jewish traditions of his family and neighborhood. After one evening, an indignant Boo demands that Adolph never invite Farkas back. As Joe eases into the early stages of a courtship with mutually attracted Sunny, he questions the obvious Christian holiday decor of her home. She innocently responds, "Just because we have a Christmas tree doesn't mean we're not Jewish." He correctly observes, "Just that you don't want to be."

By setting this work within an atmosphere of lighthearted social self-indulgence on the eve of the world's complete loss of innocence, the playwright ingeniously evokes a surreal sense of impending catharsis. The audience knows something the Freitags don't. Within a year, their being Jewish will become ragingly relevant to them, to the exclusion of such frivolities as Ballyhoo.

That said, it is doubly enjoyable to watch the beautifully performed foolishness of Walstrum's Boo and Bartlett's Reba. Weidman's Lala is equally pathetic and hilarious as the Scarlett O'Hara wanna-be who exudes a tangible terror at the possibility of not having a date for Ballyhoo. Messinger is perfect as the stoic patriarch who has learned to emotionally withdraw from the barrage of feminine need that surrounds him. Bernardi and Wesley convey a believable passion as the neophyte lovers who must cross a cavernous cultural gulf in order to accept one another.

Our rating: 3 1/2 stars

Copyright 2001, The Daily News
Reprinted with Permission 
The Last Night of Ballyhoo at the Colony Theatre