Review: The Three Maries at Prince Theater is Steeped in Philadelphia Charm

Michael Ogborn's musical is at its best when evoking the quirks and follies of our home city, especially the local accent.
Deirdre Finnegan, Franklin Anthony, Mary Martello and Josh Totora in 'The Three Maries'

Deirdre Finnegan, Franklin Anthony, Mary Martello and Josh Totora in ‘The Three Maries’ | Photo by Christoper Sapienza, Wiseman Productions

What a sense of nostalgia I felt, entering the Prince Theater for the first time in years! I haven’t been in the main auditorium since the days when it was our leading venue for developing musical theater.

So I was especially joyful to be there to see a new musical: The Three Maries, by Michael Ogborn. At this point, the show looks like a work in progress – but even now, its tuneful, good-natured, boosterish Philadelphia charm is pretty irresistible.

The Three Maries, set in the 1920s, is a historical fantasia built on a grain of fact – the visit of Queen Marie of Romania to Philadelphia for the sesquicentennial. The other two Maries are a mother and daughter (Big and Little Marie), residents of South Philly, and part of its Mummer culture. What follows is, in the words of the show’s Mission Statement, “a love letter to Philadelphia”—also, “a mash-up of Cinderella and Pygmalion.”

It is indeed all those things and more. Ogborn’s music and lyrics are unfailingly tuneful and clever. The show is at its best when evoking the quirks and follies of our home city, especially the local accent. (Ogborn’s best song is “A Diction Lesson,” this musical’s “The Rain in Spain” – it’s reprised several times, and I’d welcome even more.)

John Monforto, Josh Totora and Neill Hartley | Photo by Christoper Sapienza, Wiseman Productions

John Monforto, Josh Totora and Neill Hartley | Photo by Christoper Sapienza, Wiseman Productions

Here, in its premiere production, Three Maries is superbly performed by a fine ensemble, with breakout performances by Rachel Brennan (Little Marie), Kathy Deitch (Big Marie), Mary Martello (Queen Marie), Jeff Coon (Count Frederick) and Paul Nolan (Mr. Waterhouse) – Martello, Coon, and Nolan go that extra mile – they are themselves beloved Philly icons – but really, everybody is terrific.

What isn’t in the same class is Ogborn’s book. Some very funny jokes aren’t enough to cover a surfeit of dead air space. There’s simultaneously too much going on, and (in terms of coherence, at least) not enough. Midway through, I couldn’t figure out if Ogborn is aiming for a zany vaudeville-style romp, or trying to do a full-scale musical that’s bigger and more cohesive. Either way, the dialogue scenes need to be tighter. Then I decided just to think of the whole thing as a party, full of fun guests – and I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

You’ll have a good time, too. None of the show’s book scene problems should deter you – they certainly didn’t dim the palpable enthusiasm at Sunday’s matinee. I suspect the adoring audience (which included at least a dozen Maries of its own, and was clearly made up of natives steeped in Philadelphia lore) lost its heart even before the show began – probably with the announcement that we should “take a maaaaoooment to soylence awwl cell phaaaooones…”

The Three Maries presented by No Attytude Productions, plays at The Prince Theater through January 10th. For tickets and more information, go here.


David Fox teaches theater and runs academic programs at the University of Pennsylvania. For 16 years, he was theatre critic for the Philadelphia City Paper; he has also written for The New York Times and other publications. He also blogs on arts topics at recliningstandards.org.

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