Before attending the dress rehearsal of this staging of Flora the Red Menace, I knew almost nothing about this play other than that it provided an early role for Liza Minelli. Seeing an unknown play is always good after sitting in audiences of too many productions of Oklahoma and the good many others that are fine enough but too often pulled into a list of season offerings.
Like Flora and crew, we are living in a time during which politics are, to say the least, divisive. As in the 1930s, differences of opinion today are serious and run deep, sometimes deep enough to end relationships.
As we meet Flora Meszaros, she is applying for a job as a fashion illustrator in 1935 and meets fellow artist Harry Toukarian, who she soon finds out is a card-carrying Communist. She invites him to her studio, a former ballroom in which a variety of others she has met also practice their crafts and try to make their way through the Great Depression.
Flora’s recruitment through Harry into the American Communist Party is a dramatic scene through which contemporary audience members may see a similarity of sound bites used to pull us emotionally into one ideology or another today. The lyrics of “Sign Here,” during which Harry asks Flora whether she cares about issues like milk for children and the security center, are timeless concerns. By its end, Flora is all in.
Flora is a wonder and she’s fairly well drawn. Harry is, too. The cast, consisting almost entirely of young developing actors, shines here. The direction, choreography and set and costume designs were excellent. Even during dress rehearsal performance, there were zero missteps.
As Flora, Brittney Bressler, who has been good in each of the many roles I’ve seen her play, brings the needed optimism and idealism to make the character believable. She sings “A Quiet Thing,” which is surely the most widely known song of the many in this play, beautifully. Josh Smith gives Harry the needed mix of awkwardness and passion.
Charlotte, the Communist Party darling with whom Flora fights for Harry’s affection, is extremely well played by Timya Townsend and her performance during one of the play’s standout songs, “The Flame,” is amazing.
Maggie and Kenny, a dance team working in Flora’s studio and played by Valleri Bowman and Chase Lomont and Tyler Birely (sharing the role of Kenny due to what I’m betting was an injury for Lomont who is on stage in a wheelchair), give some major razzle dazzle in their performance of “Keepin’ It Hot.”
Many of the other Kander and Ebb songs are well performed by actors winningly cast.
The ending of Flora the Red Menace is, like its best song, a quiet thing. It’s also one that inspires a bit of thought about those political things which separate us.
The thing about Purdue Fort Wayne’s Flora that gives it its appeal is the chance it provides to see solid direction and performances. As a bonus, it might also make a good many, myself included, look a little harder at what priorities we do share when those priorities we don’t are all too obvious.