Tweaking a TV Classic in HB

By Tom Titus

One of my favorite TV shows of all time was “M*A*S*H” for a couple reasons. First, I spent a year in Korea (a few years after the shooting stopped), courtesy of the U.S. Army, and secondly, the first actor I ever reviewed, back in 1965, was Mike Farrell, who went on to create his memorable B.J. Hunnicutt character on TV’s “M*A*S*H.”

Well, “M*A*S*H” is back, or at least the live theatrical version (and without Hunnicutt). The re-imagined (by playwright Tim Kelly) adventures of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital have pitched their tent at the Huntington Beach Playhouse through Aug. 13.

Devotees of the TV show, or the movie that inspired it, will be taken aback on a few fronts. The two most diametrically opposed characters from the tube (Major Burns and Corporal Klinger) are played by the same actor and the Burns-Hot Lips Houlihan romance never gets off the ground (he’s sent home on a Section 8 shortly after she arrives).

Playgoers who’ve sat through the whole show yearning to hear the classic theme music are finally rewarded after the curtain call. It could have opened the proceedings and been played prior to and after intermission. The episode that inspired that music (“Suicide is Painless”), from the original movie, is there in all its gory glory.

Director Jack Messenger has compiled a large and energetic cast to turn back the clock for nostalgia buffs, and on most counts the mission has been accomplished. It certainly hits the mark in the performance of Michael Keeney, who plays the stellar role of Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce with bombastic enthusiasm that would bring a smile to the face of Alan Alda, his TV counterpart.

Brandon Kasper shoulders his share of the comedic load as “Trapper John” McIntyre, Hawkeye’s partner in outrageous fun. Robert Purcell plays their boss, Colonel Blake, minus the twinkle in the eye of TV’s McLean Stevenson and more like his successor, Henry Morgan, without the horse.

Trevor Wright does double duty in the roles of the uptight Burns and the cross-dressing Klinger, excelling in the first and trying playgoers’ patience in the second. Sarah Hoeven enacts “Hot Lips” Houlihan as a grim martinet and we miss the tempestuous interplay with Burns that inspired her nickname.

The nurses are all cute and competent, but Melinda Harlow is a head above the others both in talent and physical appeal. Scott Felver is a near-ringer for Gary Burghoff in the role of the clairvoyant Radar O’Reilly and Larry Moreno excels as the ambitious Korean houseboy.

On the civilian front, Suzanne Grady as a congresswoman and Glenda Wright as a college dean perform admirably. Chuck Chastain is effectively blunt and boorish as the commanding general while Tracy Marquis scores as the scam-artist cook.

Andrew Otero’s multi-level set design works smoothly, spread out over a large playing area. Paul McGlinchey and Breece Bowen handle lighting and sound duties solidly.

There are plenty of laughs and nostalgic moments on hand, despite the alterations of some memorable moments, in this raucous revival at the Huntington Beach Playhouse in the Library Theater, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach. Curtain is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call (714) 375-0696 for details and reservations.

– tt —

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