By: Lili Bita, Cultural Affairs Correspondent
With much pride and joy, I attended the opening night of Villanova Theatre’s premiere of the first full production of Michael Hollinger’s and Vance Lehmkuhl’s musical drama, A Wonderful Noise. Michael Hollinger, who now teaches at Villanova and has had a highly successful career as a Philadelphia playwright, was my student in Creative Writing when I myself taught at Villanova. The class demanded a combination of writing and acting. I was deeply impressed by Michael’s rare combination of talents, and I predicted a bright future for him. I was right.
A Wonderful Noise is set in 1941, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. The war is still far off, but there is a sense that the world is changing for good. Four young women from Philadelphia have decided to change it in their own way. One of America’s grand popular institutions of the period was the barbershop quartet, which went back to the nineteenth century at a time when barbershops were places not only for haircuts but for male socializing and camaraderie. Song groups emerged from them, and finally a Barbershop Society that sponsored national competitions for the best ones.
Amateur songfests? What could be more innocent and satisfying? But, like all the enterprises and professions from which women were excluded, the barbershop quartet was of course exclusively male. Women could sing in glee clubs and choruses, but the barbershop was an enclave for men, and the barbershop quartet wasn’t simply about singing. It was about male supremacy and gender segregation. Men ruled the world, and why shouldn’t they crow about it?
The conceit of Hollinger’s and Lehmkuhl’s play is that the young Philadelphia women have decided to crash the party by entering the national competition in drag. If they can win, they’ll prove their point: that women’s voices must be heard.
The serious point of the play is made through screwball comedy, but it is also a drama of female bonding in which the protagonists—Sadie (Megan Rose), Rose (Rachel DelVecchio), Judy (Galen Blanzaco), and Mae (Laura Barron)—discover that what they began for a dare and a lark becomes something more serious. Naturally, there are flirtations too, as the girls find themselves surrounded by the men with whom they’re competing, fake mustaches and all. The men face something a little different, which is the immanence of a war that will shortly break them up and send them into harm’s way. The world they still live in is changing around them; the world they will come home to will be very different.
Director Harriet Power keeps the proceedings going at a fast and energetic pace, with the play’s farcical and serious elements skillfully interwoven. It is particularly good to see Power back and in top form after a prolonged recovery from a motorcycle accident that left her and her husband, Temple University director Bob Hedley, seriously injured. The Villanova theater community has always been a close-knit, supporting one, and Harriet’s homecoming is particular occasion for rejoicing. Meanwhile, Michael Hollinger and his collaborator Vance Lehmkuhl, whose own association goes back to their undergraduate days at Oberlin College, have produced a witty and provocative entertainment that should please everyone.