On a stage at the Westside Theatre, located at 407 West 43rd Street, the house lights dim and the stage lights brighten, a young girl with a shaggy blonde cut and pink nightie is sprawled unconscious across the bed, the oven door is open and “What the World Needs Now Is Love” is skipping on a record player. If not for the intervention of a geeky Good Samaritan, the young girl would be a goner. Sounds like a scene from Promises, Promises, right? But it is actually the opening scene of the hilarious revival of Cactus Flower. Cactus Flower debuted at the Royal Theatre on December 8, 1965 with Lauren Bacall, Barry Nelson, Brenda Vaccaro and Burt Brinckerhoff completing the original cast. After a close to three year run, the show closed and in 1969, it was adapted into a film starring Ingrid Berman, Walter Matthau and Goldie Hawn. There is no question of the show’s success as Vaccaro and Brinckerhoff were nominated for Tony Awards and Hawn won an Oscar, but the question that lingers for me is was this farce about love written by Abe Burrows or Puck? Cleary Burrows took inspiration from those misguided lovers from Athens and like A Midsummer Night’s Dream this romantic comedy is just as zany and genius as the Shakespeare classic.
Cactus Flower grows around the love lives, and in a certain case lack thereof, of Dr. Julian Winston, Toni Simmons and Stephanie Dickinson. Julian is a good looking, middle-aged Park Avenue dentist and one hell of a ladies’ man. He claims to love Toni, a bright-eyed hopeless romantic that is in love with Julian despite the fact that he has told her that he is married with three kids. What makes this idyllic young girl love the dentist is his honesty about his ball and chains, but what she doesn’t know is that his wife and kids are figments of his imagination – an embellished cover to protect his liaisons. After Igor, the young, geeky writer next door, saves Toni from certain doom, Julian decides to marry her. But there is a problem, his wife and kids. Toni demands to meet his wife to ensure that she also consents to the divorce. Enter Stephanie, Julian’s old maid secretary. Last time she had a good time Eisenhower probably was in office. Her thorny, abrasive demeanor and efficiency in taking care of Julian mask her love for the good denstist. Julian, after much convincing, enlists Stephanie to help him in his web of lies, and the rollercoaster of laughs start from there. While keeping up his façade, thus keeping Toni in the dark , Julian winds up falling for Stephanie and Toni realizes that Igor is the man for her.
This revival of Cactus Flower tickles the funny bone and blossoms with stellar performances. Maxwell Caulfield may be best known for being Sandy’s cousin in Grease 2 and for his stint on Dynasty and The Colby’s, but as the philandering Dr. Julian, Caulfield is both deceitfully charming and amusing. Jenni Barber as Toni is probably the most delightful scatterbrain I have ever seen. Throughout the play her dizziness can drive you to want to jump on stage and shake until she finally displays a modicum of sense, but her immature quest to find perfection in love is admirable. Barber’s portrayl of the idealistic, young Toni is infectious. The character of Stephanie is the true star of the story. She is the cactus flower, prickly and barren that eventually bursts with femininity and sensuality. Lois Robbins simply flourishes as Stephanie Dickinson. She is witty, venerable at times and funny all the time. Stephanie may be the personification of a cactus flower, but Robbins is no shrinking violet. Her performance is as sweet as a rose. Jeremy Bobb is droll is the Igor Sullivan, the writer from next door. He knows his position and plays it well. The definite scene stealers in this production are John Herrera, Anthony Reimer and Robin Skye. Their portrayals as Señor Arturo Sanchez, Harvey Greenfield and Mrs. Durant are thigh-slapping, laugh-out-loud humorous. Anna Louizos received a Tony nomination for her set designs for In the Heights and High Fidelity. She creates another stunning visual setting to accompany a great cast of actors and direction from Michael Bush. Although the changes throughout the scenes were not seamless, it in no way diminished the authenticity of the show nor pulled the audience out of the fantasy. Cactus Flower’s new run will end at the Westside Theatre on May 29. I assure you, a desert plant has never been so entertaining. Cactus Flower provides a great 60s soundtrack, lively performances and smiles that will keep growing for days.
Photos courtesy of O&M Co.