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How subtle is Rep Stage’s Man With a Load of Mischief? Would you believe someone actually dims the lights to a soft glow as the romantic lead sings, “The lights begin to fade”?

The show itself is no immortal bit of dramaturgy, but the main trouble with this misbegotten production is that director Kathy Feininger has taken what’s generally and aptly described as a “chamber musical” and, in a suitably intimate space at Howard Community College, staged it broadly enough to embarrass the patrons of an 800-seat dinner theater. Her cast is complicitous—there are bite-marks all over Jos. B. Musumeci’s elaborate set—and there’s blame to be shared among the production crew, too: Marianne Meadows’ telegraphic lighting is second in obviousness only to Deborah Saady-Forrest’s grimly frenetic choreography.

But Feininger’s responsible for the whole, and she’s got the wrong idea about how to make Mischief properly. Foppish English lords, mysterious manservants, and strong-willed mistresses don’t necessarily have to be music-hall caricatures; gentle sincerity is what’s wanted to make this minor 1966 musical comedy work. But gentleness and sincerity are both wanting here, and the result is downright painful.

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Granted, Ben Tarver’s book is a clumsy, tacked-together affair: A loutish innkeeper and his starchy goodwife rejoice at the profit potential when a wealthy lady and her maid lose control of their coach on the high road nearby, but they don’t count on the amatory machinations that follow, when the rarefied dandy who rescues the women checks in as well, bringing his inscrutable groom with him.

Turns out the lady is a former stage actress—and the runaway mistress of a distinctly displeased Prince of Wales—while the lord, his pockets freshly picked at the gaming tables, is a conniving wastrel and a craven court toady who means to dupe or drag her back into the prince’s clutches, hoping her return will be worth at least the forgiveness of his debts.

The maid is no more than a grasping little chippy with an Eliza Doolittle accent and a taste for the finer things, but the manservant, inevitably, is revealed to be not just a man of noble principle but an admirer of the lady from her days upon the boards in Drury Lane. (“I know you better than I know myself,” he intones. “Here are deep waters indeed,” she replies. And the audience snorts.) Anyway, it seems his heart was broken long ago by a gypsy lass who pierced his ear during a night of passion, but he has more or less recovered from that and is ready to rescue the lady from her fallen state and forgive her sordid past—if she can pass a series of tests that prove the purity of her motivation and the depth of her love. It’s all the worst kind of sentimental bilge, unredeemed by even a hint of poetry, and there’s not a shred of internal logic as master and man woo mistress and maid indiscriminately.

A wobbly book, of course, isn’t the end of the world if the songs it’s written around are sturdy enough. But though John Clifton’s melodies include an occasional charmer, they’re hardly American Songbook material. I rather like “Little Rag Doll,” even if a sweet lullaby about the simple joys of a bygone childhood isn’t the most logical second-act number for a social-climbing domestic whose previous ditty was an enthusiastic can-can with the deathless lyric “Once you’ve had a little taste of caviar, it’s hard to swallow beans and kraut.” Other set pieces—the manservant’s “Masquerade,” the innkeeper’s “What Style!,” the title song, with its incomprehensible sentiments and labored syntax—are banality incarnate, products of the most laborious kind of tunesmithing.

But even slight material can be charming if it’s done right. The unscrupulous lord might work as a kind of brittle, high-living, Peter Wimseyish git, out of control but self-aware, embittered but never less than urbane. But Nigel Reed makes him the broadest kind of simpering silent-movie buffoon, and his singing voice isn’t nearly strong enough to redeem his acting. Mark Aldrich’s tenor, on the other hand, has an invigorating ring (it’s almost too much for the tiny Theater Outback), but his manservant is off-puttingly sulky; whether it’s bad acting or bad directing, there’s a sight too much jaw-clenching and smoldering-staring going on.

(Too much lifting and pushing, too; Musumeci’s split-personality set shoehorns an all-too-lifelike inn into the black box Outback space, but stagehands are forever folding and unfolding it like one of those toy service stations as the action moves from courtyard to common room and back again. After a while, it gets to be more amusing than the play.)

Linda Rose Payne, as musically solid as Aldrich, is comparatively subdued as the lady, and Eileen Ward, when she’s not bruising your ears with the brassiest of community-theater cockneys, makes a pert maid; tacky or not, that can-can of hers is one of the show’s most entertaining moments, and “Rag Doll,” as noted, is without question its only pretension to elegance.CP