The situation playwright Colman Domingo presents us with in WILD WITH HAPPY is rather straightforward. Gil, a struggling black actor, has left New York City to deal with the death of his eccentric mother Adelaide.
The show opens with Gil reflecting on being raised by a struggling single mother and the time she took him to church when he was ten to hear Elder Bovane and “Get some Jesus”. He hasn’t been to church since!
If you were wondering how dealing with death, funerals and grief were going to be funny, wonder no more. Elder Bovane sets the tone for just how zany this thing is going to become.
Gil arrives at the funeral home before his Aunt Glo, and his friend Mo, who were supposed to join him there to finalize the arrangements. Gil, on his own and with no desire or patience to deal with the myriad of expensive choices opts for cremation, the simplest and cheapest of the options.
While waiting for coffee and the arrangements to be completed, Gil recalls one of the last phone conversations with his mother. She talks about having just received from QVC one of her proudest possessions, a Disney Cinderella princess doll. Adelaide and Gil had been to Disneyworld thanks to a contest the year before and she was hooked on the Magic Kingdom.
Once Gil has decided on a minimalist cremation with no services, followed by a grief-quenching quickie with Terry the young new age funeral director, he heads to Adelaide’s apartment.
After Gil gets to his mother’s apartment his zany Aunt Glo arrives and begins to rummage through Adelaide’s closet, selecting the things she wants for herself. Aunt Glo has an outspoken opinion on everything including Gil’s choice to “burn up” his mother. Glo is angry that he is not giving her the opportunity to grieve in the customary community way. Gil just wants to put this all behind him and get back to New York. The dialog is flowing back and forth like a game of verbal tennis just as Gil’s friend Mo arrives on the scene. Mo, by all outward appearances and behaviors, might be thought of as a little bit off center, but he does have a solid yet unannounced plan to help his friend grieve.
Once he and Gil pick up Adelaide’s ashes, they start the drive back to New York. Mo then takes a surprise detour; a road trip to Disney World with Terry and Aunt Glo in hot pursuit. Thanks to CPTS (Colored Person Tracking System) placed in the Cinderella doll by Mexicans at the request of Aunt Glo, they have no trouble following them.
Once the fireworks begin at the happiest place on earth everything turns out happily ever after!
City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio is an intimate three quarter thrust performance space seating around one hundred and twenty five people. It’s the perfect venue for Wild With Happy. The comedy is in the style of Robin Williams, Lucille Ball or Dick Van Dyke delivered in both physically and the verbally with jousting between the characters.
Director Reginald L. Douglas’ casting choices create a perfect ensemble for Wild With Happy in terms of style, physical presence, and comedic timing.
Corey Jones’s Gil is the comedic foil and the reality balance that grounds all the other performances. Gil may be the one who’s struggling with grief but the rest of them are genuinely crazy. Jones brings the action forward through the process of dealing with the logistics of the non-funeral and disposal of her assets. He conveys Gils’ desire to just get on with it and yet reveals the difficulty Gil has in dealing with his mother’s passing.
Point Park alum Monteze Freeland delivers physical comedy with perfect timing as both Elder Bovane and Mo. The latter is a sort of multi-gender character who possesses all of the required practical wisdom to resolve any issue in the best theatrical tradition. Freeland’s characters keep the audience laughing whenever he is on stage.
Pitt alum C. Kelly Wright plays both Adelaide and Aunt Glo. Adelaide while being a funny character has a required seriousness for the audience, she just died after all. Glo, on the other hand, is over the top opinionated and thirsty. She is that zany relative that seems to live in everyone’s family. She’s generally correct but can make you crazy while getting her point across. Wright’s portrayal of the two characters so different that if you didn’t know by the program it was the same actor you wouldn’t know. There is a brilliantly done moment at the end of the play when she literally morphs before your eyes from Aunt Glo to Adelaide.
Pittsburgh native and Point Park alum Jason Shavers portrayal of Terry, the fourth generation funeral director, has just the right amount creepiness for a guy who deals with dead bodies all day yet with a degree of sensitivity that isn’t fake.
Tony Ferrieri’s scenic design elements are minimalist yet cleverly executed including the cars for the road trip and the pop out bench. Costume Designer Karen Perry’s suit for Gil is classy and expensive looking, but a tad misfit, subtly reinforcing the perception of Gil’s less than successful acting career.
Douglas’ directorial vision brings all the elements and timing together perfectly in a show that’s both fun filled and a joy to watch. Not bad for a show about death and grieving, it is a small world after all and a Cinderella story too!
WILD WITH HAPPY by Colman Domingo, Directed by Reginald L. Douglas At the City Theatre’s Lester Hamburg Studio now through May 7, 2017 For tickets and more information call 412-431-2489 or click here.
Thanks to the City Theatre for the complimentary tickets.
Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover.