The mild bunch rides again

Some might scoff at the resurrection of a sitcom that ended its five-year run 20 years ago. But The Brady Bunch endures, this time as an affectionate satire.

The Globe and Mail, January 26, 1994   

You remember all of it, whether you want to or not.


You recall Greg’s constant striving for some exalted state of grooviness. You remember Marsha’s dilemma: should she follow in Carol’s footsteps as a homemaker or take up the imperatives demanded of her by the burgeoning women’s movement? That dilemma was complicated by the prospect of that dreamy guy who could, conceivably, ask her to the prom.


And what about those overlooked middle kids? Peter, devoid of a personality and only occasionally irked by the fact. Jan, cranking even the most mundane annoyance into a crisis. Finally, the twin ciphers, Bobby and Cindy — defined by little more than a saccharine punch line every fifth episode.


And with a wince, you remember the macramé vests, wide-leg bell-bottoms, that haircut that made Carol look as though she was wearing an octopus on her head, and the use of the adjective “groovy” with a straight face.


And what about Alice, the domestic who seemed to be employed as the family’s court jester?


All these matters  have taken on a particular urgency for the cast of The Brady Bunch Live, which opens tonight at the Bathurst Street Theater. To get the rights to do live  performances of the TV series’ original scripts, the production has to deliver them exactly as written  — word for bland, predictable word. And while that’s constricting in one way, it frees the cast to subvert what’s on the page with their performances.


“We’re trying to find a balance,” says Colin Mochrie, the actor charged with reanimating the Solomon-like wisdom and puckish humor of patriarch Mike Brady. “We don’t in any way want to insult the rabid Brady fans, and yet it’s got to be entertaining enough for people who aren’t Brady fans.”


Some may scoff at the theatrical resurrection of a sitcom about the marriage of a widow and a widower and their combined family that ended its run 20 years ago and has been in syndication ever since. But it’s a strange if puzzling fact that few other television programs have proven so hard to kill. Only the legion of Star Trek fans seems as faithful and obsessive, and their ardor has been kept alive with a series of movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Brady brigade has had to content itself with the same five seasons’ worth of episodes in an endless rerun loop. (The show debuted in 1969 and ran until 1974.)


But The Brady Bunch endures, which has made this affectionate stage satire a hit in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.


According to the play’s producer, Robin Payne, The Brady Bunch is “the Kraft Dinner of TV... You know it’s not that good for you, and you know there’s finer food. But if you’re feeling depressed, you can eat some Kraft Dinner  and it’s like when you were five or six — it’s the same comfort feeling.”


Ridicule is another reason for bringing back the show. The stage version aims to invest life chez Brady with ironic subtext.


“When it came to deciding on the presentation or style of the show, we decided against going with Brady impersonators,” says Bruce Pirrie, the Second City writer-director who’s working out the performance’s details and nuances. “I figure in the long run that our strength would be in performers who would be able to bring some kind of inner life to these characters.”


That’s why the cast comprises people with strong backgrounds in improvisational comedy who have to rely on their word-for-word delivery of the scripts to create irony.


“Subtext never existed on The Brady Bunch,” Pirrie says. “If it had been written better, it might indicate or point to something. Everyone knows that Hamlet has an inner life because he trots around saying that he does. Just because Peter Brady doesn’t say he does doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one.”


But what is that subtext, exactly? The cast is working on defining it. For example, they postulate that Alice may have been more to Mike than just an employee prior to his marriage to Carol.


Getting the original scripts from Paramount also revealed  that chunks had been excised before the shows were filmed. This production restores those lost Brady moments.


“It’s like Spartacus,” Colin Mochrie says. “This is the director’s cut. We should have it letterboxed.”


Robin Payne is cautious about too much analysis, however. “Some people say things like, ‘Oh, the sexual tension between Greg and Marsha.’ But I don’t really buy it. I think there’s something to be said about magic. Not to elevate The Brady Bunch too much, but there was something about it. Maybe it was because there were enough kids that everybody could identify with one age or one gender. It hit a chord. Something happened. . . . We’re pathetic, aren’t we? We can’t talk about Tolstoy, but we’re down with The Brady Bunch.”


Whatever chord it hit, The Brady Bunch left a lasting impression. Both Payne and Pirrie were surprised during auditions at the number of people who showed up in full Brady regalia — people driven only by a burning desire to become one of the members of the Brady family. Many claimed they had a special, innate understanding of Jan or Greg or Marsha.


But that kind of zeal misses the point. The show aims to revel in the cheesy, rickety plots, creaky writing and two-dimensional characters, while, at the same time, holding the whole mess at arm’s length in order to laugh in disbelief that anyone ever watched more than 10 minutes of it.


That’s an approach to the past peculiar to people who grew up in the 1970s. “How can you do anything else, when what we grew up with was brown polyester?” Payne wonders. “I think it’s very healthy, personally. It’s horrible, but you love it — it’s your past.”


“It’s like witnessing a car wreck, but you’re in the car wreck,” is how director Pirrie describes it. “It’s a two-fold way that people have of looking at — ‘Ah, my reckless youth. It’s gone’ and ‘How could I have been so stupid?’ I think The Brady Bunch has as much to say as our own reactions to it. It’s like a blank wall . . . well, maybe a beige wall.”


Anyone faced with the prospect of performing these scripts had to overcome a significant mortification hurdle as rehearsals began. But the large cast helped. No matter how inane a particular performer’s line might be, it was a sure bet that everyone else in the cast would have to make similarly dopey utterances.


“The most embarrassing part of it had nothing to do with the script,” Mochrie says. “It was the costume fittings. You’re wearing these costumes and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I wore stuff like this. I wore this and thought I was so sharp.’”


Initially, the show is set to run for four weeks, reprising the first episode of the series. Each show opens with a 40-minute improvisational session dealing with seventies TV and based on audience suggestions. The actual episode re-enactment runs about 40 minutes. After that, a new episode will be performed every two weeks, beginning with “Personality Kid,” the episode containing Peter’s delivery of the phrase “pork chops and applesauce” several dozen times.


Advance ticket inquiries indicate a sizable audience eager to guffaw at its collectively embarrassing past. Payne relates an overheard conversation which sums up the response: “Three people were talking about this in a restaurant, and one said, ‘Oh yeah — I want to go and see that.’ Another guy said, ‘What do you want to go see that for? It was an awful show. Don’t bother.’ But they talked about it for more than an hour, and by the end, it was like, ‘Yeah, that does sound like fun. Okay, let’s all get tickets.’”