BINGO! The Winning Musical: A Birthday Tribute
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227
Performances: April 19-May 4, 2019
Ticket Prices: $23 General admission; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students
Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The invitation to “come play Bingo with us” is not just hollow words. The first thing I noticed when I entered the CAT Theatre space on Tuesday evening was the aroma of popcorn. After checking in at Will Call and obtaining my program, I was given a set of bingo cards, a dauber, and a ticket that could be exchanged for a cup of popcorn before the show or during intermission. Inside the theater half the audience seats had been replaced by tables for six, transforming the space into a reasonable replica of a bingo hall.
Bingo! The Winning Musical, with book by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid and music and lyrics by Hietzman, Reid, and David Holcenberg, is an interactive comedy that kept the audience engaged with three fairly fast-paced rounds of standard bingo (five-in-a-row) while the actors participated in more advanced versions of the game, such as covering numbers in the shape of a happy face or an airplane. The play, directed by Pat Walker, opens on three friends staring out the window observing a raging storm, and briefly debating the wisdom of attending their weekly bingo storm. Bingo wins out over safety, and they show up late at their favorite bingo hall only to find that they have missed the early bird game and even worse, some newcomers (i.e., theater patrons) have taken their lucky seats.
Honey (Caitlin St. Clair) is a blonde bombshell with a heart of gold. A rather dim bulb, she is three-times divorced and has her eye on Sam (David Atkins), an ex-con auto mechanic who calls the numbers for the bingo games. Patsy (Sandra Clayton) is a petite woman in a brightly colored jogging suit who has adopted a number of superstitious rituals involving troll dolls and rabbits’ feet. She won’t play bingo without performing her rituals, although it has apparently been years since she has actually won a game. Finally, there is the sharp-tongued Vern (Amber Dawn dePass), the leader of ladies’ night out by virtue of her strong personality.
Bingo! The Winning Musical is set in a fictitious suburb in Pennsylvania in current times on the 90th anniversary of the birth of bingo. For some reason, it seems as if the group is celebrating the birthday of Edwin S. Lowe, who popularized – but did not invent – the game of Bingo. Lowe’s portrait has a prominent place center stage, there are birthday cakes, and the cast sings “Happy Birthday” as a postlude. (Interestingly, while it is known that Lowe died on February 23, 1986 in his Manhattan home, his exact birthdate is unknown, other that it was sometime in 1910 in Poland.)
In flashbacks, we learn that fifteen years ago Vern had a major falling out with her best friend, Bernice (Vanessa Fetcher) over a winning bingo card, and the two haven’t spoken since. Since this is a comedy, Bernice’s daughter Alison (Emma Grace Bailey) shows up in the present to try to reconcile her mother and Vern as Bernice is dying. And since this is a comedy, Alison has disguised her long brown hair with a long brown wig – and no one recognizes her except Minnie, the manager of the bingo hall, who tags her as a soap opera actress.
At one point Vern heckles an audience member who is sitting in “her” lucky seat because he has won the door prize – which she even attempts to take from him. Minnie Martinelli, the manager of the bingo hall, maintains order among the ladies, assists the patrons of the bingo hall (including the audience members), and does basic maintenance. This includes everything from keeping everyone calm when the power goes out because of the storm to sweeping up discarded bingo cards to sucking the gas out of a patron’s car to refuel the generator when it runs out of gas.
Martinelli, who is played by Cynthia Mitchell, Executive Producer of the Bifocals theater of senior actors and a CAT Theatre Board member, does of all this with a soft voice and surprisingly subtle comedic timing, while dePass and Fletcher carry off the broader, more physical comedy. Bailey’s over the top solo, Nurse Ratched’s Lament from Cuckoo, the musical version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had actors in the audience roaring with laughter.
There are humorous scenes involving a moving portrait and a hidden door, and a “surprise” ending. With all of this going on, it’s a mystery that the first act seemed to drag on far longer than the hour it actually took. And it’s almost possible to forget this is a musical, even though there are at least half a dozen songs and reprises of several. The reason for this, I think, is that while the actors have pleasant voices, they rarely project and soar, but rather sing as if trying not to disturb the neighbors. I’m not sure if this was an artistic decision by music director dePass or due to acoustic limitations. There’s that and also that the music is recorded rather than live. At one point I found myself considering the word parody to describe this show.
In addition to dePass who played Vern and was Music Director, St. Clair did double duty as Honey and the show’s Dance Captain. And Pat Walker was both Director and set designer. There were several dance numbers featuring umbrellas as props. The minimal set – unusual for CAT Theatre – consisted mostly of black walls, a portrait, a desk for Sam, a table for the Bingo! ladies, and, of course, the tables for the audience. Atkins, Fletcher, and Mitchell were all making their debut on the CAT stage. Walker previously directed Enchanted April for CAT a few years ago and has directed the Bifocals senior theater for both Barksdale/Virginia Rep and now Bifocals at CAT.
On leaving the theater, many people remarked how cute Bingo! is, with one describing it as adorable. There is nothing remarkable about Bingo! The Winning Musical. It is an enjoyable, stress—free two hours of musical comedy that doesn’t require the audience to think or make decisions or judgments. And you get to play along.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Ann Davis