OWATONNA — Audiences will get to know — and laugh at — the wealthy, eccentric Bullock family, as well as Godfrey, who improbably resurrects his life while employed as their butler, during the Little Theatre of Owatonna’s production of “My Man Godfrey” later this month.
During the Great Depression, Godfrey is residing in a New York City dump but ends up with the Bullock clan after acting as a “forgotten man” in a scavenger hunt. Though he’s later accused of stealing the famed Bullock pearls by Irene Bullock’s jealous sister, Cornelia, Godfrey seizes the moment to recover his fortune, bails the Bullock family out of their own financial downturn, and eventually marries Irene.
The 1936 film version of this screwball comedy was a critical and commercial smash, even earning Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories — best actor for William Powell as Godfrey, best actress for Carole Lombard as Irene, best supporting actor for Mischa Auer, and best supporting actress for Alice Brady — as well as a directing nod for Gregory La Cava. In 1999, the film was deemed “culturally significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
For the LTO production, Godfrey is played by David DeNeui, and it was actually seeing the 1936 film that piqued his interest in this tale, he said. “It’s a really funny story with a crazy, rich family,” but there’s “more depth to it than face value,” and “you learn more about the characters as it unfolds.”
“Character-building in the story draws you in until the very end,” DeNeui said. Furthermore, “I’m a big fan of comedy, in general,” and this play provides “winning humor” in spades.
The comedy is more “witty” than “slapstick,” said Jon Terrill, directing his 10th LTO production. Like DeNeui, Terrill, too, is a fan of the 1936 film, and he appreciates how closely this script adheres to the original story.
Godfrey is “a pretty solemn guy,” hiding his Harvard education, DeNeui said. He’s also “very intelligent,” and the Bullock family affords him “a second chance to redeem himself” after a “rough past.”
Godfrey is also “much more humble” than characters DeNeui has played recently, like Gaston in the Paradise Center for the Arts production of “Beauty and the Beast” and Lord Farquaad in LTO’s “Shrek the Musical,” he said. While those individuals were self-centered egomaniacs, Godfrey is “full of sincerity.”
“It’s obvious” early that Irene has fallen for Godfrey, for his intelligence, the fact he and Irene share the same values of genuinely “caring about people,” and because he stands up to her villainous sister, but “it takes until the end for Godfrey to realize he ought to fall in love with her, too,” Terrill said with a laugh. The way Sarah Esch plays Irene is “very funny, and I think everyone falls in love with her.”
After performing regularly on stage while in high school and college, Esch drifted away from theater when a job didn’t allow her the time, but in a new position, her nights are free, she said. This is her first production on the LTO stage, and she’s found returning to theater is “exactly the same.”
“New stage, new group, new director, but the same feelings,” Esch said. This cast and crew is “such a family helping each other grow.”
Irene is “fairly-ditzy, but well-meaning,” and Esch’s top challenge in playing the role is to make Irene not so mindless as to “annoy everyone,” she said. “It’s harder to play a funny character well than to play a serious character well. Anyone can play a funny character, but it’s hard to play a funny character well.”
Esch is also enamored of this play’s setting and style, she said. “I love the art, the design, and the costumes.”
Women are often in evening gowns, while men wear tuxedos and suits for cocktail parties, Terrill said. “The costumes are awesome.”
Mary Butler Fraser is responsible for technical direction in the play, performances of which are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 20, 21, 27, and 28, as well as 2 p.m. April 22 and 29. Online tickets will be available beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday on the LTO website, http://littletheatreofowatonna.org/, or at the box office starting Monday. The box office is open 4-6:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday on non-performance nights, as well as on performance nights from 4-7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 12:30-2 p.m. Sunday.
Playing a butler is new to DeNeui, and carrying out his serving tasks while performing his lines is his main challenge, but he’s especially fond of the production’s longest scene, a 20-pager in the final act which is “in a sense the climax of the show” and includes him carrying Irene up a staircase, he said. “It’s exciting.”
“This cast, from, the beginning, has been ahead” of schedule, Terrill said. “Of all the productions I’ve been (part of), this one is coming together the best.”