When I walked into Marietta's Strand Theatre to see The It Girl, I had an instant flash of what live theater could use in these hard times. Popcorn!
The Strand opened in 1935 as an art deco movie house, but stood vacant for years on Marietta's historic town square (roughly catty-corner from Theatre in the Square). The newly restored venue proves cozier than the Fox Theatre but has a little less of the grindhouse funk than the Plaza. The Strand currently serves as the home for Atlanta Lyric Theatre, and when you step into the modest lobby, the popcorn aroma immediately surrounds you. That salty, buttery perfume carries an immediate sense of anticipation and nostalgia, putting you instantly in a "show" frame of mind.
The Strand also proves an ideal venue for The It Girl, a musical adapted by Michael Small, B.T. McNicholl and Paul McKibbins from Paramount Pictures' 1927 film It. The silent romantic comedy, chosen for the National Film Registry, marked the career highpoint of bobbed actress Clara Bow, one of the flapper era's quintessential performers. Directed by Alan Kilpatrick, the stage musical doesn't just follow the film's original story, it offers a loving homage to the conventions of silent movies. Maybe too loving.
Claci Miller offers a spunky performance as the Clara Bow character, Betty Lou Spence, a Brooklyn shopgirl at Waltham's, a huge, failing New York department store. To reverse the store's flagging sales, young owner Jonathan Waltham (Mike Masters) seizes on a new ad campaign based on 'it,' loosely defined as sex appeal, and launches a contest to crown 'The It Girl.' (In real life, 'The It Girl' became Clara Bow's nickname, prompting writer Dorothy Parker to quip, "It, hell. She had those.")
Atlanta Lyric Theatre's production emulates 1920s film styles with a black-and-white color scheme and silent, slapstick vignettes that have a sped-up quality, almost like seeing film shot with an overcranked camera. Jen MacQueen's choreography pays fitting homage to the Charleston and other 1920s dances. Paradoxically, Masters' ease on stage brings out Jonathan's amusing anxieties, while Bethany Irby, in the frivolous villainess role as Jonathan's conniving fiancée, blossoms with her number "A Perfect Plan."
Small's and McNicholl's script perfectly captures the dialogue of the era's entertainments (both on silent movie title cards and in the early talkies), which is something of a mixed blessing. When a character rhymes the word bankruptcy with "so it's time to start over and bounce back up-cy," it sounds exactly like a Depression-era quip to lift your spirits, but most of the jokes are dusty groaners. Similarly, the costumes' and set's monochromatic look, while cleverly executed, gradually casts a dreary pall over the screwball hijinks. Audiences unfamiliar with silent movie conventions may not immediately warm to The It Girl, despite the cast's enthusiasm.
Designed as a cinema, the Strand has its own quirks as a venue. The sightlines can be problematic for live theater — if someone tall sits in front of you, you may find the actors partially obstructed. There's also the risk that you'll sit next to a guy chewing popcorn with his mouth open and who painstakingly licks his fingers. Overall, though, the Strand provides an ingratiating home for the Atlanta Lyric Theatre, proving that the 73-year-old venue has still got it.