Monday, February 6, 2012

Befogged: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

David Turner, Jessie Mueller, & Harry Connick Jr. in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Photo: Nicole Rivelli)

It’s rather fascinating to sit through the new Broadway revival of the Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner musical On a Clear Day You Can See Forever because you keep trying to get into the heads of Peter Parnell (who revised the book) and Michael Mayer (who re-conceived and staged it). They must have thought it would work, but it’s hard to imagine how, even given the level of delusion on which the Broadway musical theatre sometimes operates – think of Twyla Tharp’s Bob Dylan musical The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and didn’t someone just close a musical based on Bonnie and Clyde? On a Clear Day has a sumptuous score, but the book has always been trouble. When it began in Boston in 1965, before the original leading man, Louis Jourdan, had been replaced by John Cullum, Lerner was struggling with so many plot strands that the show ran nearly four hours, and after he’d trimmed it down to a presentable length for its Broadway opening it felt truncated, still excessively busy and random, as if he’d taken an axe to whichever overgrowths he could get at rather than melting the whole scenario down to a viable dramatic form.

The premise is complicated, to say the least. A psychiatrist named Mark Bruckner is approached by a nervous, chattering young woman named Daisy Gamble who hopes he can hypnotize her to stop smoking. He puts her under – she’s so susceptible that he barely has to say anything before she’s snoozing in his chair – and when he regresses her he discovers she had a previous life as an aristocrat in late-eighteenth-century London whose sexy portrait-painter husband wouldn’t stay faithful to her. In the course of interviewing Daisy’s witty, literate, elegant, independent-minded alter ego, Melinda Wells, Mark finds himself falling in love with her. So he spends as much time as he can with Daisy, who falls for him, mistakenly believing he’s courting her twentieth-century self – the only personality she’s aware she possesses. Mark is certainly a relief from her square fiancĂ© Warren, who’s looking for employment with the company that can offer the best pension and who is happiest with Daisy when she’s at her most conventional.

Kristin Chenoweth as Daisy (2000)
The hyperactive plot also includes a previous suitor whom Melinda rejects for being a rake (just what her husband, Edward, turns out to be); an eighteenth-century shipwreck (end of act one) that is echoed in a narrowly averted air disaster (end of act two); and a press field day over Mark’s publication of his new, not-so-scientific thoughts about reincarnation that culminates in his being fired from the institute that has employed him. There’s even a brief appearance by a Greek magnate of incalculable wealth who wants to fund Mark’s research in the hopes that it will yield information on what his subjects will become in their next lives; the magnate has the cockeyed scheme to leave himself his fortune. (Now there’s a subplot Lerner should have hacked off, along with the number it generated, “When I’m Being Born Again.”) From all reports the glue that kept all these elements from flying off into the stratosphere in the original production was the star, Barbara Harris. And I’m guessing that it’s a combination of the songs (like “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” – which Audra McDonald has covered exquisitely – and “She Wasn’t You” and “Melinda” and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have” and “Come Back to Me” and the title number) and the spell Harris casts even over the Broadway cast recording that fools people into thinking there might be a good musical lurking somewhere underneath the mess. The 1970 movie version, Vincente Minnelli’s penultimate picture, was awful; even Barbra Streisand, in her prime, wasn’t much good as Daisy/Melinda. (And she and her leading man, Yves Montand, had so little chemistry that they barely seemed to be in the same film.) Encores! produced it as one of its polished staged readings in 2000 with Kristin Chenoweth, and she was charming (less so in the English sections), but the production mostly offered a glimpse of all the reasons why no one should ever revive On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

Perversely, the new version, which is set mostly in 1974 Manhattan, eliminates the one component of the show besides those songs that is of genuine value: Daisy, whose self-effacing style and lack of self-esteem – in contrast to Melinda’s poise and self-possession – masks from Mark, for a time, the kooky charm that he eventually realizes makes her lovable. Lerner botches the moment of realization, but we get it anyway because there can be nothing ordinary about a character who’s played by Barbara Harris (or Barbra Streisand or Kristin Chenoweth). As evidence, she has wondrous extra-sensory talents: she makes flowers grow at the speed of time-lapse photography by singing to them, she can locate lost items, and she knows when a phone is about to ring or a visitor is about to arrive. In her place Mayer and Parnell give us David Gamble (David Turner), a nebbishy young gay man who works in a flower shop and is so terrified of commitment that whenever his boy friend, Warren (Drew Gehling), suggests they move in together he changes the subject. (Turner, who has a perfectly pleasant singing voice, gives the bland performance the script asks for.) David even hides his three-pack-a-day habit from Warren; that’s why he begs Dr. Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick, Jr.) for hypnosis sessions in the hope that they can help him erase the deception. David has no personality; his smoking and love of flowers and commitment phobia are his only characteristics. He has no special power over flowers (the omission makes his first number, “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here!” – previously the serenade Daisy uses to coax buds out of the earth – entirely superfluous); he can’t find Mark’s keys or hear his phone before it rings. But when Mark regresses him he discovers that up until moments before his birth during World War II he occupied the body of a vivacious Big Band singer named Melinda Wells whose life was cut off in a plane crash at the outset of what might have been a triumphant career. Mark falls in love with Melinda, so he keeps booking time with David in order to see her again. Presumably that prospect works better, in physical terms, for the audience, who sees and hears an actress, Jessie Mueller, in the role, than for Mark, a straight man who has to be aware that he’s chatting up – and, just before intermission, kissing – a young man. His obliviousness (to put it mildly) misleads David into thinking that Mark has developed an erotic interest in him.

Photo: Sara Krulwich
There’s something creepy about the set-up, and Mayer and Parnell, who are both gay, ought to have recognized it. This isn’t Twelfth Night, which provides some logic for the cross-dressing joke: Orsino finds himself drawn to a young man, Cesario, because Cesario is really the woman, Viola, whom by all rights he should be in love with, who’s his match in temperament and wit, education and (nearly) class. (Like many romantic comedies, Twelfth Night plays with the elements of high comedy.) The point of Mark’s infatuation with Melinda isn’t that he’s really in love with David Gamble but doesn’t know it, unless Mayer and Parnell want to try out that old saw that all straight men are really gay or everyone’s really bisexual. And they don’t, as it turns out: David ends up with Warren, after Mark proclaims, all evidence to the contrary, that he’s really a very special person. Parnell and Mayer try to explain away Mark’s erotic fixation on Melinda by giving him a back story: the wife he adored died four years ago and he still hasn’t managed to move past his grief. So, having researched Melinda’s short life and discovering her sad fate, he regresses David one last time to try to stop her from getting on the doomed plane. But Melinda, with the kind of transcendent wisdom that clumsy playwrights bestow implausibly on characters, explains to him that we have to accept our losses and live in the moment. So, the finale implies somewhat unpersuasively, Mark will finally start paying attention to the loyal colleague (Kerry O’Malley) who’s been waiting in the wings, setting him up on dates with her friends but really pining away for him.

In both versions of the musical, Daisy/David finds out what Mark has been up to by playing a tape of one of their sessions and is justifiably pissed off at both the shrink’s manipulation and his blithe dismissal of his/her present-day incarnation. (The song Lerner inserted in this slot is “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” which the Broadway cast recording suggests might have been the highlight of Harris’s performance.) On a Clear Day skirts Mark’s bad behavior by having him come to the realization that he’s been missing the prize right in front of his eyes (Daisy). But in the rewrite, where obviously Mark can’t come to the conclusion that it’s David he’s in love with, his behavior with his unsuspecting patient seems so egregious that not even the immensely likable Harry Connick can get us past it. Connick sings Mark’s songs sweetly but except for the scene in which he begs Melinda not to board the plane his acting isn’t very good, though based on his performance in Kathleen Marshall’s 2006 revival of The Pajama Game (where he partnered Kelli O’Hara) and his handful of movie roles, he’s a perfectly competent actor with a winningly unassuming presence. In On a Clear Day, most of the time he looks pinned like a butterfly to the idiotic script.

Jessie Mueller and company (Photo: Paul Kolnik)
You can’t blame Parnell and Mayer for wanting to get rid of the England scenes, which don’t work and don’t contain any good songs except for “She Wasn’t You.” The 1940s setting and the Big Band flavor seem like a good idea, though they don’t seem to have inspired the designers, Christine Jones (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes), any more than the mid-70s sections did; the production is exceptionally ugly to look at. However, the revision does give Jessie Mueller, a vibrant performer and the only reason to see the show, with a trio of good numbers, all of which have been interpolated from the only other collaboration by Lerner and Lane, the 1951 movie musical Royal Wedding. (That’s the movie in which Fred Astaire dances on the ceiling, a clip that is better known than the film itself, which is rather forgettable.) The show does provide the fleeting pleasure of hearing Mueller and Connick duet on “Too Late Now,” a bittersweet ballad that became a jazz standard. Less felicitously, it adds the three songs Lerner and Lane wrote for the movie of On a Clear Day, none of which deserves to be unearthed, including the Streisand-Jack Nicholson duet that Minnelli wisely left in the cutting room. (For the masochists among you, there’s a recording of it somewhere.)

Parnell’s staging is flat, and Joann M. Hunter’s choreography doesn’t add much in the way of invention. Aside from Mueller – a real find who suggests a muted version of the young Liza Minnelli with more of a turn for melancholy -- the show doesn’t have a raison d’ĂȘtre. And there isn’t enough of Mueller, whereas there’s far too much of bland David Gamble and his colorless boy friend Warren. The gay content of this On a Clear Day is as bafflingly pointless as it would have been if, say, the writers had made these characters Chinese and set the song about the cruise Harry takes Daisy on (the sprightly “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn”) in Chinatown. Some ideas should never make it out of the first brainstorming session.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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