This locally written. much workshopped hit of last year's Seattle Fringe festival is having its first regular run, at the Bathhouse, under the auspices of Red and Me, AKA composer Robert Jones and book writer/lyricist/director Donna Rae Davidson. Claudia Kelly's 500 Hats is not a groundbreaking musical, or one that requires heavy thinking. In short, it is just the kind of funny, tuneful, feel good show people are wanting to see right now, which accounts for the healthy attendance at the performance I caught (on a Friday night, when at least three other shows cancelled scheduled performance due to shockingly low attendance).
The slight but sassy plot finds Claudia - who lives in a veritable jungle of hats for all occasions - approaching middle age, and pondering crashing her ex-boyfriend's wedding, amidst unsolicited advice from her campy gay best friend and her meddlesome mother, who harbors a secret about Claudia's father. That really summarizes the plot, but Davidson's book is breezy, bright and full of laugh out loud jokes, and her lyrics are agreeably funny and wistfully warm as need be. Jones effervescently eclectic score is instantly hummable and toe tapping.
Davidson's direction is fast-paced, and she has given free rein to the immense talents of versatile comic actress/singer Bobbi Kotula. Her Claudia is wacky yet warm, outlandish but never obnoxious, and she sells her comic numbers like "Oh Bob" with gusto. Teamed with the ideally cast Joanne Klein as her Mama Emily Rose, she tugs at the heart in duets like "Baby In My Belly" and "Holding On." John W. Bartley is such a naturally flamboyant performer that the gay confidante role is one he could probably do it in his sleep, but he brings a full tank of energy and zeal to the task, as well as in an en femme duet with the gals weighing and the pluses and minuses of "Men," and as an unnamed soldier (pivotal to the plot) who trios with Claudia and Mama on the sweet ballad "Emily Rose." Rounding out the four-member cast is the immensely likable Mark Sparks as the man who got away from Claudia. The ensemble also takes place in a hilarious curtain call number "Always A Bridesmaid" which ends the show on an appropriately loopy note.
Jones leads a trio of musicians who lend perfect accompaniment to the score, and the casual but chipper choreography is by the many hat wearing Ms. Davidson and Lonny Rogers. Set and lighting design chores were capably and colorfully handled by Benjamin Baird, Pippin Sardo costumed the show with good humor and bright color schemes, and finally the real Claudia Kelly (who inspired the piece) contributed a splashy and eye-popping array of hats, many of which are on sale to the audience.
- David Edward-Hughes, Talkin' Broadway