Sexual Intrigue, Spinning Beds, Slamming Doors,
All Set to Music, Highlight Farcical "Hotel d'Amour"
at Off-Broadstreet Theatre

Donald Gilpin

 It all starts with a misplaced pair of red suspenders. Then there's the mysterious love letter proposing a rendezvous at the Hotel d'Amour, "where the elite meet to be indiscreet." Leaping in to thicken the stew of sexual intrigue are a womanizing insurance salesman, a violently jealous husband, a carousing young man with a hilarious speech defect, a goofy hotel bellhop -- "the finest voyeur and worst bellboy in Paris" -- who bears an uncanny resemblance to the play's protagonist, and various other lascivious types, including an eager doctor, a belligerent Brit, a slimy concierge and more. Outrageous puns and double entendres, a lively musical score with wildly rhyming lyrics, a mad chase scene, and a set with nine slamming doors, a spinning bed and double windows perfect for jumping out of complete the picture.

Raymonde (Suzanne Houston) sets a trap for her husband, but before the evening is over her scheme produces surprising consequences.

Check your profundity and political correctness at the door. "Hotel d'Amour," playing through August 24 at Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell, is all about highspirited highjinks, clever humor, a brilliantly intricate plot and a range of abundantly talented performers -- with more froth on stage than there is in the delicious desserts served before the show at this popular dessert theater. This entertaining show evokes the romping, ribald, mostly innocent spirit of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors," the Marx Brothers, the "Keystone Cops" and Michael Frayn's recent comedy hit "Noises Off."

Created in 1993 by Chicago-based Gregg Opelka (music and lyrics) and Jack Helbig (translation and book), Hotel d 'Amour is based on A Flea in Her Ear (1907), one of the best-known comedies by the classic French farceur Georges Feydeau. This musical adaptation sees its East Coast premiere here, under the direction of Robert Thick.

Multi-Talented Ensemble

Mr. Thick has brought together a strong, multi-talented, professional ensemble of Off-Broadstreet veterans and newcomers. He has cast the show wisely. Seasoned performers with excellent singing voices and the ability to create vibrant, credible characters fill the four major lead roles. Mr. Thick has directed with unerring finesse, moving the complex action smoothly and clearly, and honing the comic timing to a fine edge. The songs are tuneful and captivating, the lyrics witty and amusing, the plot is engaging, and the pace ranges from brisk to breakneck, until the action reaches a poignant resolution at the end.

This musical farce is set in Paris in the 1920s at the home of Victor (Tom Orr) and Raymonde (Suzanne Houston), and at the Hotel d'Amour. A "flea in the ear" of Raymonde initiates the action of the plot, when she suspects her husband of infidelity and conspires with her friend Lucienne (Marieke Georgiadis), as they decide Victor "needs education in a bad, bad way." They write him an anonymous letter from a "secret admirer," arranging an assignation at the notorious Hotel d'Amour.

French men -- "Take a chance and be proud; this is France, it's allowed" (Americans, British and Spaniards also take some shots here) -- and Feydeau farces being what they are, before the first act is over, all 14 characters, played by 12 performers, are heading to the Hotel d'Amour. Some are looking for amour, some for a variety of other purposes.

Victor's friend Romain (Steven J. Murin Jr.) is in hot amorous pursuit of Raymonde, but of course ready for any other opportunities he might encounter. The jealous Carlos (JeffPerrine), recognizing his wife Lucienne's handwriting on the letter and convinced that she is unfaithful, immediately takes out his pistol and -- after a hilarious solo number ("Shoot First") -- storms off to wreak his vengeance.

Victor's nephew Camille (James K. Perri) and the maid (Nicole Krai), pursued by the butler (Stuart Grow), seem to be regulars at the Hotel d'Amour, as another humorous subplot arises around the issue of Camille's speech defect, his miraculous cure and a glass of boric acid.

Though the Hotel d'Amour hardly lacks its share of resident eccentrics, this motley assortment of hotel "guests" joins the suave concierge (David Cramer), a visiting Englishman (Mr. Thick) with an affinity for women and fisticuffs, Victor's doctor (Tom Chiola), who is romancing the hotel's owner (Kristen Walters), the beleaguered bellhop (also Mr. Orr), who is repeatedly mistaken for Victor, and a somnolent homeless man (also Mr. Chiola).

Complications Multiply

Complications multiply -- exponentially -- along with the energy and humor, and the second act concludes with "a not so very merry chase," before the final scene sorts it all out back at the home of Victor and Raymonde.

Ms. Houston and Mr. Orr are superb in their challenging lead roles. He takes advantage of a wonderfully comic, expressive face and does a consistently first-rate job in furfilling his demanding dual role. As singer, dancer and actor, he is thoroughly convincing and comical in a wide range of contexts. Ms. Houston possesses a beautiful voice and never hits a wrong note, in her song and dance numbers or her dynamic creation of this appealing character. Any performer who can move an audience to romantic sighs with a song titled "He Sells Insurance" has certainly earned the highest acclaim!

Also standing out among this distinguished ensemble are Mr. Perrine as the hilariously "manic Hispanic" Carlos and Mr. Perri, contributing memorable comic moments as the energetically speechchallenged young nephew Mr. Thick's production team -- himself, his wife Julie as the capable choreographer, along with Dale Simon to assist with the set and Ann Raymond for the colorful, carefully coordinated costumes -- is up to its usual high standards. Stage left depicts Victor's well-appointed study, while stage right represents the lobby and the upstairs rooms of the hotel. That design arrangement enables Mr. Thick to stage the action effectively and efficiently, and it saves the problem of changing sets between scenes. In the frenetic activity of the hotel scene, however, with its wild pursuits and assorted antics, the cramped design does somewhat limit the scope of the action.

Stephen C. Bearse on the keyboard leads the animated, expert four-piece orchestra, with Sue Moxley (husband Eliot ably standing in the night I attended) on trombone, Steve Sacavage on reeds and Jonathan Cooper on percussion.

Off-Broadstreet has once again taken a risk and succeeded in its production of a relatively untried show, this one never before seen on the East Coast. Over the past 18 years Bob and Julie Thick have repeatedly demonstrated their near perfect pitch in knowing their audiences, discovering shows (often little-known) that will entertain those audiences, and mounting imaginative productions that effectively showcase their strengths and the personal, physical and theatrical resources of the Off-Broadstreet Theatre. Hotel d 'Amour admirably fills the bill on all the above counts and looks like a hot ticket for the final four weeks of its seven-week run.

"Hotel d'Amour" runs weekends through August 24, with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and on Sundays at 2:30, at the Off-Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell. Doors open for dessert one hour before the show. Call 466-2766 for reservations and further information.