• Theater Review: ‘Educating Rita’ witty and deep
    By Jim Lowe
     | June 30,2013
    Photo by Tim Fort

    Sarah Manton is Rita and Geoffrey Wade is Frank in the Weston Playhouse production of “Educating Rita.”

    More than just another contemporary take on the “Pygmalion” tale, Willy Russell’s “Educating” Rita” is a comic but revealing take on the personal journeys nearly everyone must take in order to reach fulfillment.

    Weston Playhouse Theatre Company opened its 77th season of professional theater Friday with a thoroughly entertaining and touching production of “Educating Rita” at the Weston Playhouse.

    The performance was followed, as most are, by its Cabaret, downstairs, featuring Weston performers in comedy song and dance numbers — with some bawdy surprises. Friday’s was a particular delight.

    “Educating Rita” premiered in London in 1980, winning the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, going on to become a 1983 feature film starring Michael Caine. It tells the tale of a working class girl, Rita, a ladies’ hairdresser in fact, who wishes to better herself with an education. In signing up for the Open University program, she ends up with Frank, a Scotch-swilling has-been poet at odds with the system, who needs the money for drink.

    Frank is attracted by Rita’s unspoiled thirst for learning, untouched by any pretension of sophistication. Rita is drawn by Frank’s depth and sophistication as well as his disdain for the superficial.

    For the first half of the show, Frank brings Rita — kicking and screaming — into the world of great literature. To do so, she must renounce not only her previously held beliefs, but her personal background as well.

    But this is countered by the joy of learning — and Frank’s acid wit.

    In the second half, however, Rita decides she has moved beyond Frank and embraces the trappings of academia. It takes some painful soul-searching for both Rita and Frank to recognize where their personal journeys are taking them.

    Russell’s script is witty as well as filled with the deep humor that truth engenders. Weston’s production, directed by Malcom Ewen, one of the company’s three producing artistic directors, explores these qualities and proved terribly funny as well at Friday’s opening night performance.

    Weston veteran Geoffrey Wade was ideally cast as Frank. The self-deprecating caustic wit and quiet desperation of a has-been university professor resonated in Wade’s compelling performance, as well as the tender pathos that gave it real dimension.

    Sarah Manton, a native Brit, was also well cast as Rita, but spent too much of the first half with a monochromatic brashness (often just too loud). But as the story developed, Manton’s performance blossomed. More importantly, the two interacted in such a way to make their performance riveting — and most entertaining.

    Weston’s physical productions are consistently the best in Vermont, and this was no exception. An appropriately realistic set design by Russell Parkman, expressive costumes by Kirche Leigh Zeile, effective lighting by Kendall Smith and sound design by Cole Hamrick all contributed to the production’s polish.

    Weston’s après theater, “The Cabaret: Weston after Dark,” presented after most main stage performances, proved most entertaining on many levels. Directed by Tim Fort, another of the producing artistic directors, the current show is built around theater music of the 1960s. Although it was a half-century ago, it’s amazing how much of it remains familiar — to younger folks as well.

    A revelation was the Young Company. While they were fine in the current kiddy show, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” they proved most talented hoofers and comics, remembering the likes of the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, and many more. The singing, dancing and banter were excellent and fun.

    Fort, too, proved an able singer as well as an emcee, and Ewen (director of “Educating Rita”) delivered an indescribably funny, lusty hick farmer, a reminder that both had once been on the Weston stage. The Young Company, in its tribute to Vermont, performed its own version of the ballet, “Swan Lake,” — “Cow Pond.”

    Still, what took the show over the top was the arrival of the “Educating Rita” stars, Wade as Queen Elizabeth II and Manton as Kate Middleton. I suspect that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t appreciate her bawdy side exposed quite so frankly. But the audience loved it.

    Weston Playhouse

    Weston Playhouse Theatre Company presents Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita” June 25-July 6 at the Weston Playhouse, off Route 100 in Weston. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, plus 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday and Saturday. For tickets or information, call 802-524-5288, or go online to www.westonplayhouse.org.

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