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Adrift in Macao

It isn’t necessary to be familiar with American film noir to enjoy Adrift in Macao, Christopher Durang and Peter Melnick’s irresistibly delightful musical spoof of the style, but it could help.

So here’s Film Noir 101. Just after World War II, in the summer of 1946, Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank noticed that the American crime and mystery films that were flooding French cinemas were all similarly dark in tone. These were pictures like Otto Preminger’s Laura, John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. He called this style “film noir,” or “black film.”

These films are imbued with fear and paranoia, with protagonists who are often on the run, generally racing through violent and menacing urban landscapes. These tales of intrigue and deception are populated by aloof misogynistic anti-heroes and hard-boiled double-crossing dames. Typically shot in black-and-white, they make heavy use of nighttime settings, with figures lurking in the shadows of alleys, docks, and abandoned buildings. Film noir seemed to herald the arrival of Cold War anxieties.

Many of these films are Hollywood classics, but it doesn’t take much for overused Hollywood devices to become camp. In looking for inspiration for their silly musical film noir escapade, Durang and Melnick seem to have taken inspiration, in part, from Macao, a 1952 film noir disaster, produced by Howard Hughes and starring Jane Russell, Robert Mitchum, William Bendix, and Gloria Graham. Josef von Sternberg, the genius behind all of the great Marlene Dietrich pictures, was hired to direct the film, but was fired by Hughes, who replaced him with Nicholas Ray (best remembered for Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar). It would be Von Sternberg’s last movie.

Set in China but filmed in Japan and on the Hollywood lot, Macao fits neatly into the film noir niche. “Into this hotbed of espionage, intrigue, and murder, three people take refuge.” It can be fun to take a peek at Macao, before or after seeing the musical. (The trailer can be viewed on YouTube.) You won’t be disappointed, and yes, of course, Russell plays a hard-boiled nightclub singer in a slinky dress.

For their merry romp through Macao, Musicalfare has deployed the talents of Kelly Copps and Kay Kerimian as hard-boiled nightclub singers in slinky dresses, Steve Copps as an American on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and Ben Puglisi as the cynical ex-patriot who seems to pull the strings. These are Americans taking refuge in an exotic urban landscape where intrigue, drugs, and smuggling prevail. The production is under the direction of Randall Kramer, with Bethany Burrows and Nick Lama gamely playing a variety of spare film noir types, and Marc Sacco as racially ambiguous “Tempura,” filling in for Hollywood’s ubiquitous all-purpose Asian, Philip Ahn.

Silly fun, especially for the movie buff, among the show’s most delicious pleasures is the characteristically fine set by Chris Schenk that slathers on Hollywood clichés of Asian exotica with a trowel. The production continues through May 25.

For ticket information, dates, and times for these productions see the On the Boards section.