If we took the title “Lunch at the Piccadilly” literally, what kind of meal would this musical be?
Gently sauteed butter beans that go down easy and leave you full. Cornbread with a little mayonnaise put in to sweeten it. A few tart fried pickles. Slow-cooked greens with – let’s be honest – a little ham added for flavoring. And a tall glass of unsweetened tea to brace you and send you away refreshed.
The play, with its book by Clyde Edgerton and songs by Mike Craver, begins with the older characters onstage in chairs and ends with each of them on his or her feet. By that point they have made us laugh frequently, wince occasionally at the cruelties of old age and admire various kinds of stubborn individuality, while realizing these old folks won’t be able to exercise it for many more years.
I’d guess your feelings may depend on age. Folks under 25 probably won’t see the show. Those 25 to 40 might think, “Life’s tough when you get old. Thank God I’m not!” People 40 to 65 can say with rueful recognition, “These characters remind me of my parents.” Anyone above that is likely to murmur, “I see myself up there.”
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The creators intertwine three story lines. The Porchers at Rosehaven Retirement and Care Facility pass their days peacefully, until assertive Lil (Rebecca Koon) arrives. She joins timid technophile Eli (Craver), exuberant ex-preacher L. Ray (Trip Plymale) and wonky poet Clara (Patricia Cucco) in the First Breakfast Club, which starts a movement to combine nursing homes and churches into “nurches.”
Carl (Greg King), Lil’s kindly nephew, yearns for Anna (Mary Mossberg), who took over as Rosehaven’s manager after her uncle (its founder) died. But Rosehaven has debts, and Anna thinks she’ll have to sell. The likeliest buyer, Ted Sears (Beau Stroupe), runs a religious college and wants to use it for a new department of “Christian geriatrics.”
The third strand remains the weakest; Sears begins as a bullheaded bureaucrat but later turns out to harbor adulterous thoughts. He’s like a pinch-lipped hypocrite from a Frank Capra movie, and his sudden comeuppance smacks of a second-tier Capra ending.
Otherwise, the playmakers stay on solid ground. The romance unfolds warmly, and Craver has written a flavorful, diverse score that touches on arcana (the amusing “How Does a Glass Eye Work?”) but more often touches the heart. He and Edgerton never shy from serious topics; the opening number, “Another One Comes to Us,” repeats the lines “Hard to see us, hard to be us/Until we pass the bloody torch.”
Sometimes stinging truths get conveyed through drama. In the plaintive “How Do You Tell ’Em,” we’re reminded that the loss of car keys means a loss of freedom.
Sometimes they’re conveyed through humor. An expertly performed rap by the Porchers tells us “As old folks, we understand the history/We live in the mystery/But for you young punks, it’s gonna get blistery.” We will all shuffle in their carpet slippers someday.
Director Steve Umberger, returning to Booth Playhouse (where he helmed shows for Charlotte Repertory Theatre), has assembled his old crew: set designer Bob Croghan, lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder, sound designer Fred Story.
Umberger has directed this show multiple times over a decade, often with some of these cast members. They perform in harmony throughout, musically and emotionally – perhaps because the oldest can already envision themselves sitting on a Rosehaven porch some summer afternoon.
‘Lunch at the Piccadilly’
WHEN: Sept. 17-Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000, blumenthalarts.org.