It has taken several years for "That Beautiful Laugh" to come together in its current version at the Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, but the results have been well worth the wait.
You aren't going to find a better show, more laughs, more heart, more simple fun anywhere. And the show is determinedly family-friendly.
It's filled with slapstick, with jokes as old as time, and yet everything is fresh, delightful, up close and personal. The clowns are not only close and friendly; they come out into the audience to almost literally force you to laugh.
"That Beautiful Laugh" was first seen at the Cal State Long Beach Players Theatre several years ago, and it is very different, if memory serves; this production is brighter and livelier, but the story is the same. In a world that has forgotten how to laugh, an old man comes to restore laughter, and finds a company of clowns who need his inspiration.
This show is presented by Four Clowns as part of the Long Beach Playhouse's collaborative series.
The play takes place on a stage set with a miniature theater on the left side, ladders and a couple of trunks. Andrew Eiden is Marvin, who takes a space voyage (via shadow puppets) to a land where laughing is forgotten. There he finds five frightened clowns who need a little help to get started: Antoine McGroe (played by Mike Funt), who explains he is French in what sounds like a Bronx accent; Peking Duck (Connor Kelly-Eiding); Cosette of the People (Julia Davis); Princess Tyrone (Emily Brennick), who is hiding in a trunk; and Tom (Dave Honigman).
Marvin and the other clowns are frightened of each other, and of the audience, but soon they grow comfortable, asking questions and playing tricks on children in the front row.
The slapstick routines are fast and furious. The show is scripted, but there is plenty of room for improvisation, and plenty of improv happens.
All six clowns are trained and skilled, and are both appealing and appalling. Turner Munch directs, and he has sense enough to let them have their way on stage.
- John Farrell
The overarching premise of That Beautiful Laugh—basically, an attempt to capture “that beautiful laugh” in a world that once lost all laughter but has since rediscovered all but the eponymous type—is too loose to matter much, especially considering this is a kid-friendly show. It all comes down to whether the clowns are entertaining, including (considering the show’s interactive design) how well they can engage the audience.
The results are mixed, particularly if there aren’t any kids in the audience.
There was a risk in the choice by Four Clowns, the theatre troupe co-founded by Alive Theatre co-founder Jeremy Aluma, to create a kid-friendly clown show that would play the majority of its performances on Friday and Saturday nights. That risk was front and center at the performance I saw, which lacked even a single kid in the house. In the absence of what may be its target demographic, it seemed the six clowns were unsure how much to engage their adult audience. While largely scripted, the improvisational element of That Beautiful Laugh gives the clowns a tough tightrope to walk when the audience is sitting back in their seats.
The best stuff on this night came when the actors focused on themselves and each other. Marvin (Andrew Eiden), who is to some degree the contextual clown m.c., summons the childlike clowns into existence, and they hit the world in a state of near nescience, needing to acquire knowledge of everything they encounter, including each other. It’s good fun to watch this play out, and to see the clowns—each with a distinct personality—move from fear to curiosity and wonder. Their discovery of each other is lovely, particularly in the case of the three females, Princess Tyrone (Emily Brennick), Cosette of the People (Julia Davis), and Peking Duck (Connor Kelly-Eiding).
Then comes one of the show’s strongest points: its use of physical rhythm. Describing just how the clowns learn a lesson about negotiating each other and the world through a sort of rhythmic cause-and-effect would be a bit too much of a writerly exercise to serve this review, but it’s precious, and whether or not show “conceiver” (there is no writer credited) Orlando Pabotoy and director Turner Munch know it, That Beautiful Laugh‘s most effective conceit is its metaphorical exploration of infant development.
The middle of the show is dominated by the clowns’ coming to understand that they are part of a show and conjuring ways to showcase their particular talents and personalities. The standout here is Kelly-Eiding, whose Peking Duck (in a delightful stroke of Dadaist absurdism, the name has no significance whatsoever) is a hyperactive practitioner of a martial art she cannot pronounce the same way twice. She’s an ebullient spaz, and whether she’s front and center or in the background, her energy and attentiveness to the moment never flags. The more Peking Duck, the bigger the laughs.
That Beautiful Laugh does some nice things visually, particularly with an involved bit of shadow-puppetry midway through. Musically, the fact that some music is live and other bits are piped in over the P.A. leads to a bit of atmospheric unevenness. The musical highlight is a live version of “What a Wonderful World.” Yes, it’s absolutely one of the most overused songs in the history of Earth, and I was rolling my eyes when they started in. But the tasteful arrangement—three-part background harmony, melodica, and a rough lead that would have Satchmo nodding with approval—proved truly effective and affecting.
What hurts the show is a bit too much repetition, whether it’s a clown catchphrase we hear one too many times or the “zippidee-doo-dah” vocal tag employed to denote a sort of scene change. Perhaps that works for kids, but if it leaves adults cold, then you’ve got a problem with half your audience—and that’s if you’ve got a lot of kids in attendance. As I experienced, that’s a big “if.”
There is, of course, humor that can tickle the funny bone of kid and adult alike. (For example, there’s a great nose-related sequ1ence in That Beautiful Laugh that brings to mind Wonder Showzen.) It’s hard to say whether Four Clowns delivers enough of that. Presumably a roomful of kids would grease the wheels, so hitting one of the Sunday matinees might be just the ticket.