Monday, May 13, 2013

Three Musicals, Three Eras

Tessa Faye and the cast of Goodspeed's Good News (Photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Of the collegiate musicals that used to be a staple of the Broadway stage, like Best Foot Forward and Rodgers and Hart’s Too Many Girls, Good News!, with its sweet and snappy DeSylva, Brown and Henderson songs, is probably the most enjoyable. (That is unless you count the 1943 movie version of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy, which changes the setting from a ranch to a rural college.) Good News! opened in 1927 and though its cast of characters is mostly undergraduate, it presents a juvenile version of the Roaring Twenties, with its sorority flappers and freewheeling football players and its air of unrestrained frivolity – its tacit conviction that youth ought to be able to last forever. Vince Pesce’s new production at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is true to that ebullient spirit. Typically for a Goodspeed show, it’s expertly sung and danced and the numbers (choreographed by Pesce) are spirited.  One – “The Varsity Drag,” one of the play’s big hits, which comes before intermission – is a rabble-rouser that finds half a dozen clever ways to get the high-stepping ensemble back and forth across the relatively compact space.

The double conflict centers on the feasibility of getting Tait College football star Tom Marlowe (Ross Lekites) into the climactic game against Tait’s traditional competition, Colton, after he’s flunked his astronomy exam. Professor Kenyon (Beth Glover), a Tait alumna, reluctantly agrees to give him a make-up, and his debutante girl friend, Pat Bingham (Lindsay O’Neil), persuades her egghead cousin, Connie Lane (Chelsea Morgan Stock), to tutor him. When, inevitably, Tom and Connie fall in love, he realizes that if he plays he’ll be duty-bound to marry Pat, who’s pinned their engagement to the outcome of the game. Professor Kenyon’s unresolved one-time relationship with the football coach (Mark Zimmerman) and a secondary (comic) love triangle involving the most formidable physical specimen on the team, Beef Saunders (Myles J. McHale), spunky Babe O’Day (Tessa Faye), and a skinny clown named Bobby Randall (Barry Shafrin) round out the romantic entanglements

Lindsay O'Neil and Ross Lekites
The cast is fresh-faced and likable, though a little of the comic trio (McHale, Faye and Shafrin) goes a long way – except when Faye and Shafrin are singing the “Button Up Your Overcoat” duet in act two. The score is a mishmash of Good News! tunes and DeSylva, Brown and Henderson borrowings from other places.  Helen Kane did famous recordings of “Button Up Your Overcoat” and “I Want to Be Bad” from Follow Thru; Belle Baker, among many others, sang “Here I Am, Broken-Hearted”; “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” comes from Hold Everything! and Gloria Swanson sang “If You Haven’t Got Love” in one of her few talkies, Indiscreet. Fans of the great movie musical Pennies from Heaven will recognize both “I Want to Be Bad” and “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (from George White’s Scandals, but mostly known from Rudy Vallee’s 1931 rendition).

The book by Laurence Schwab, B.G. DeSylva and Frank Mandel is hardly Shakespeare, and in fact the script Comden and Green crafted for the delightful 1947 movie version (the second; one was released just three years after the Broadway run) is considerably altered. The astronomy exam doesn’t enter the plot until well after Tom (Peter Lawford) has unwisely dropped Connie (June Allyson) for the gold-digging snob Pat (Patricia Marshall). Though you get to hear “The Best Thing in Life Are Free” and “Just Imagine” and “Lucky in Love” as well as “The Varsity Drag” and “He’s a Ladies’ Man,” the movie is stacked with interpolations, two of which – Lawford and Allyson’s library duet “The French Lesson” and Joan McCracken leading the chorus in “Pass That Peace Pipe” – are the movie’s highlights. (Another is the distinctive hipster nerd Mel Tormé in a rare movie appearance.)  So I don’t mind so much that the book the Goodspeed used, written by Jeremy Desmon, isn’t faithful to the letter of the original. The problem is that the dialogue is banal in an unmistakably twenty-first-century way. No girl in a 1920s musical show would have talked about messing with her boy friend’s head or told him to get his big-boy pants on. If the point of mounting a musical from 1927 isn’t to figure out how to replicate the style of the era it hails from, then what would it be?

Shonn Wiley and Irina Dvorovenko in On Your Toes at the New York City Center (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Encores! finished up its twentieth season last weekend with a superlative production of On Your Toes, the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical that hasn’t been revived in New York in thirty years. Between 1935, when that team of tunesmiths returned to New York after a few years in Hollywood, and the end of the decade they turned out perhaps the most astonishing run of scores in Broadway musical history: Jumbo, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, I’d Rather Be Right, I Married an Angel, The Boys from Syracuse and Too Many Girls. On Your Toes is a quintessentially thirties show that addresses the American fondness for mixing high and low art – not as profoundly, perhaps, as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess had the year before, but in its own witty, Manhattanite way.(Rodgers and Hart were New Yorkers par excellence.) The hero, Phil Dolan Jr. (known simply as Junior), is a third-generation vaudeville dancer whose parents send him to study music when he’s a teenager, right around the time he’s starting to date up girls from other acts on the bill. Fifteen years later, he’s teaching classical music to aspiring musicians and songwriters. When one of his protégés writes a jazz ballet for a New York-based Russian ballet troupe, Junior gets embroiled with the prima ballerina, Vera Baranova, whose partner-lover finds the idea of performing in a Yankee jazz ballet degrading. Vera and Konstantine’s fiery Russian temperaments provide Rodgers and Hart and George Abbott (the original director), who collaborated on the book, with plenty of comic material. The musical begins in vaudeville with the Three Dolans and ends with the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet, which Junior winds up dancing with Vera. In the 1936 Broadway production, Ray Bolger played Junior, the Russian émigré dancer Tamara Geva was Vera, and George Balanchine – whose first wife Geva had been, until  a decade earlier – choreographed both “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and “Princess Zenobia” (a parody of Russian fairy-tale ballets), which closed the first act. It was a landmark collaboration, the first between Tin Pan Alley and the world of classical dance.

Christine Baranski and Walter Bobbie (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Part high-thirties burlesque, part backstage musical, with not one but two mini-ballets: it’s easy to see why On Your Toes is revived so seldom, though the 1983 version, which featured Natalia Makarova as Vera and the talented young Lara Teeter as Junior, was successful and received (justly) laudatory reviews. I’m not sure Encores! has ever mounted anything so ambitious before, and the production, directed and choreographed by the gifted Warren Carlyle – last represented in the series by Cotton Club Parade – didn’t stint. The two ballets were fully staged; the sets (which, as always, listed John Lee Beatty as “scenic consultant”) were pared-down but had a lavish feel; and the costumes, credited to consultant Amy Clark, included two ensembles for Christine Baranski, as the ballet company’s wealthy managing director, Peggy Porterfield, that knocked your eye out: satin orange pants with a white blouse tied ascot-style at the neck and a jaunty white hat and a hip-hugging cocktail gown with a scooped cape and a wide fur collar. Visually the show worked hard to match Rodgers’ melodic mastery and the sophisticated quality of Hart’s lyrics, which include several of his jauntiest and most sophisticated: “It’s Got to Be Love,” “Too Good for the Average Man,” “The Heart Is Quicker than the Eye,” the title song and the lushly masochistic “Glad to Be Unhappy.” The runaway hit from the show was “There’s a Small Hotel,” though Sinatra recorded “Glad to Be Unhappy” triumphantly in the fifties and Streisand took a turn with the shimmering, evocative “Quiet Night” in the sixties. Truth to tell, the score doesn’t contain a bad song, or even a song that, in a lazy mood, you might want to skip; even the novelty numbers, the opening trio “Two-a-Day for Keith (and Three-a-Day for Low),” the cheerful complaint of the workaday vaudevillian, and “Questions and Answers (The Three B’s),” Junior’s music lesson, are charmers. “Questions and Answers” is a perfect example of the musical’s high-art/low-art balance: the modern youths in Junior’s class bitch about having to listen to classical music rather than pop, but their lament contains a mythological allusion

                Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
                Great examples of the charms of Orpheus

                Throw us right into the arms of Morpheus

With sixty-six bodies on the City Center stage, including Rob Fisher, the brilliant music director and guest conductor of the marvelous Encores! Orchestra (Fisher spent years at the helm of the Encores! musical project), you can’t blame the cheering audience for feeling we were at a banquet. Fisher coaxed the singers to underscore Hart’s wit so that the audience kept breaking up over the jokes in the lyrics. The reception was most voluble in Christine Baranski’s two duets, “Too Good for the Average Man” with the stage director Walter Bobbie (the former artistic director of the series) as Sergei Alexandrovitch, the dance company’s chief honcho, and “The Heart Is Quicker Than the Eye” with Shonn Wiley as Junior. Baranski, aided by Bobbie, kept leading the show down the path of high comedy, while Wiley and honey-voiced Kelli Barrett as Junior’s songwriter sweetheart, Frankie, kept it securely grounded in musical comedy. The ringers from the world of dance were Irina Dvorovenko of the American Ballet Theatre as Vera and Joaquin De Luz of the New York City Ballet as Konstantine

Encores! never short-changes its audiences on choreography, but the sheer amount of it on display in On Your Toes must have set a series record. The show settled in with the “Two-a-Day for Keith” number at the top of the show, performed expertly by Randy Skinner as Pa, Dalton Harrod as adolescent Junior, and the incomparable Karen Ziemba – too long absent from Broadway houses – as Ma. But the indisputable highlight was the “On Your Toes” number in the middle of act two, where the Americans in Junior’s music class and the Russians in Sergei’s company engaged in an affable competition of Yankee and Soviet dance styles that, like the title number in Kathleen Marshall’s Anything Goes revival two seasons ago, spiraled wider and wider as Carlyle added more and more choreographic devices, like heel kicks against up-ended platforms and changements delivered by ballerinas upside-down in their partners’ arms. (Exceptional among a bedazzling dance crew was Alex Wong, an alumnus of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.) The number was a bliss-out; the show was one of the treasures in the short history of this beloved institution. 

Edward Watts as Superman, in New York City Center's It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman. (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

The March Encores! show was originally produced three decades after On Your Toes. It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman wasn’t a hit, but partly because its book writers, David Newman and Robert Benton, went on to write Bonnie and Clyde the next year, it’s always occupied a curious place in musical-comedy history, and I was happy to have a chance to see it at last. John Rando, who staged it, and Joshua Bergasse, who choreographed the numbers, did right by the square, sixties/comic-book style, as did Beatty and costume consultant Paul Tazewell, who peppered the stage with cardboard cut-out furniture and eye-popping primary colors. Rando and his cast lent the show the appropriate burlesque style and smart-ass sophomoric tone. Edward Watts, who looks a little like Bob Goulet as a comic-book action hero, gave a witty physical performance as Superman/Clark Kent. Jenny Powers and Alli Mauzey were the two belting women, Lois Lane and Sydney. And the pair of villains – Will Swenson in the Jack Cassidy role, the narcissistic newspaper columnist Max Mencken, and David Pittu (in a ridiculous wig that looked like a feather duster with a streak of gray underneath) as the vengeful Dr. Abner Sedgwick, were tip-top. Newman and Benton’s script omits Perry White and Jimmy Olson, but it does have a quintet of Chinese acrobats known as The Flying Lings, who shore up the wobbly second act, with its who-cares? plot developments and jerrybuilt resolution.

The score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams doesn’t rank with their best, but it has more than enough pleasing songs, and one, “You’ve Got Possibilities,” which Linda Lavin delivered in 1966, is pretty close to being a showstopper. (Mauzey did it justice.) The problem isn’t the dialogue, which is fresh, but the plot, which sounds like something Newman and Benton might have written in their sleep and doesn’t make very much sense. (Sedgwick has been bested for the Nobel Prize all his life so he wants to take his revenge by defeating Superman?) But the musical didn’t deserve to be dumped in the trashcan, and Encores! served its mandate by retrieving it.

– 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 and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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