Don Marquis was a New York newspaper columnist, poet, humorist, playwright and short-story writer who worked in the early decades of the last century. In 1916, while writing for the New York Sun and faced with the challenge of having to produce a column six days a week, he began a fictional series titled "archy and mehitabel" as a space-filler for days when he had little else to write that was newsworthy.
The column also served as a social commentary on daily life in the big city as seen through the eyes of Archy, an intellectual cockroach who had once been a great poet in a previous existence. Mehitabel was his best friend, a female alley cat of questionable reputation. Each night, after the paper's human workers went home, Archy poured out stories and philosophical musings by hopping from key to key on Marquis' old typewriter. Unable to reach the machine's shift key, all of his work was written in free verse, without capitalization or punctuation.
Marquis wrote nearly 500 columns over the years, featuring Archy, Mehitabel and various other nonhuman denizens of Shinbone Alley, the garbage dump where all the animals lived. In 1954, Joe Darion (a lyricist) and George Kleinsinger (a composer) reworked 20 years of Marquis' sketches into a collection of dialogue and songs. In 1957 they teamed up with young comic writer Mel Brooks and presented the work as Shinbone Alley, a full-scale Broadway musical. Today the musical is known, once again, as archy & mehitabel and it has kept Marquis' characters alive for modern audiences.
With a talented cast of singers/performers, the Mad Cow Theatre has staged archy & mehitabel in a well-mounted but ultimately haphazard production directed by Patrick Flick and choreographed by Lea O'Connell. It's not that the jazzy music, under the direction of Robin Jensen, isn't invigorating or that the characterizations by noted performers Michael Andrew as Archy and Sara Jones as Mehitabel aren't ingratiating. But regardless of the passionate craft invested by the company, the show suffers from the same dilemma noted at its original incarnation by New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson: "There is a lot of fresh and amusing stuff in 'Shinbone Alley' … . But the basic problem of how to make a theater piece out of a book of random verse has not been solved." In New York, the show closed after only 49 performances.
In this production, there are many enjoyable moments not the least of which is the fine work by Stephan Jones, especially in his guise as Tyrone Tattersall the cat, an imperious and honey-voiced producer and star-maker. Jones plays Mehitabel, the selfish, almost worn-out purveyor of the "gai" life, with the appropriate Weltschmerz of a down-and-out saloon singer. She is well-supported by a trio of feline confederates played by Kimberly Gray, Reagan Smith and Jenny Weaver. Andrew makes a fine Archy his wiry body and plaintive expressions nicely serving his character (though fans of his concert appearances might agree that his vocal talents are largely underutilized).
Unfortunately, the whole of archy & mehitabel is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The story line is thin, centering on Archy's attempt to make an honest house cat out of the disreputable Mehitabel; the songs, though sung very well, have a restless undertone. Much of Marquis' satire gets lost in translation, and this production can't make up its mind whether it's a fairy tale for children or a sophisticated allegory for adults. There are many fine scraps to be had in archy & mehitabel, and Mad Cow has found most of them, but dinner at the Waldorf it's not.