Tuesday, May 7, 2019

From the Musical Theatre Canon: The Music Man, Kiss Me, Kate and Lady in the Dark

Ellie Fishman and Edward Watts in The Music Man. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man became a classic as soon as it opened on Broadway in 1957, with Robert Preston in the role of “Professor” Harold Hill, the scamming salesman who transforms a pre-World War I Iowa town – and himself – in the course of persuading the locals to purchase instruments and uniforms for a children’s band. Willson, who wrote book, music and lyrics, did as much to develop the archetype of the American snake-oil salesman as Eugene O’Neill had in The Iceman Cometh, though his version was sweeter and came with a bona fide happy ending. (Preston recreated his career performance in the 1962 movie version.) Revivals of the show are generally good news: Susan Stroman’s opened on Broadway in 2000 and ran for two years, and it was so glorious that I saw it twice, once with Craig Bierko playing Hill and once with Robert Sean Leonard, who was even better than Bierko. (Eric McCormack played the role between Bierko and Leonard.) I’m looking forward to seeing Hugh Jackman in the part next season.

In the meantime there’s an exuberant new production at the Goodspeed Opera House, directed by Jenn Thompson and choreographed by Patricia Wilcox, with Goodspeed veteran Michael O’Flaherty doing his usual yeoman service as musical director. The Music Man is the ideal show for Goodspeed – big-boned, spirited, infectious, with a lot of wonderful ensemble numbers that show off the way imaginative staging can make a limited space feel like it’s being expanded from the inside. The choreographic high points of this production are “Marian the Librarian” in act one and “Shipoopi” at the outset of act two. But even the staging of the barbershop quartet numbers, especially “Lida Rose,” counterpointed by “Will I Ever Tell You?,” the most tuneful ballad Willson wrote for Marian (Ellie Fishman) and introduced by the four men (Branch Woodman, C. Mingo Long, Jeff Gurner and Kent Overshown) strolling down the theatre aisle, is tremendously satisfying. The show moves from scene to scene in a graceful arc aided by the scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III, whose inventions compensate for his single mistake, an unfortunate (and anachronistic) painted backdrop more or less in the mold of the American regionalist Thomas Hart Benton.

Edward Watts doesn’t bring anything startlingly new to the role of the music man, but he handles all its elements with finesse – the vaudeville patter, the straw-hat-and-cane-style numbers, the seductive moves, the tinny glitter and the unsuspected heart of gold beneath. “Ya Got Trouble,” “Seventy-Six Trombones,” “Marian the Librarian” and the lesser known but equally marvelous “The Sadder But Wiser Girl” are everything one hopes they will be. (Seth McFarlane did a tip-top version of it on his 2011 solo album Music Is Better Than Words that made me think he could be a memorable Harold Hill.) Ellie Fishman’s singing is better than her acting; she tends to push for her effects when she isn’t guided by her superb musicality. The strong supporting cast includes D.C. Anderson as the hard-nosed Mayor Shinn, two terrific dancers, Juson Williams and Raynor Rubel, as Hill’s friend and accomplice Marcellus Washburn and the adolescent Tommy Djilas (who defies Shinn by romancing his eager daughter, sweetly played and charmingly danced by Shawn Alynda Fisher), and a couple of likable kids, Alexander O’Brien as Marian’s kid brother Winthrop (whom Hill brings to life) and Katie Wylie as her piano student, Amaryllis. Amelia White plays Marian’s firecracker of an Irish mother, and every one of her jokes lands. The gossiping town ladies of “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little” are Kelly Berman, Cicily Daniels, Victoria Huston-Elem and brass-lunged Stephanie Pope as brass-lunged Eulalie Shinn. Pope is my favorite member of the cast.

The score, performed with brio by the company, consists of one treasure after another. (The runaway hit was the second-act romantic duet, “Till There Was You,” which The Beatles covered.) Willson never duplicated the trick: The Unsinkable Molly Brown is mediocre and Here’s Love, his musicalization of Miracle on 34th Street, is a dud. But you only need one show as good as The Music Man to ensure your immortality in the history of the American musical theatre.

Corbin Bleu and Stephanie Styles in Kiss Me, Kate. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Cole Porter, of course, had several, but Kiss Me, Kate – about the on- and offstage shenanigans of a troupe of thespians mounting a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew – marked the zenith of his career. And I wouldn’t have thought it needed to apologize for itself, considering the quality of its songs and its witty Sam and Bella Spewack book, a combination of high comedy set within a theatrical aristocracy and romantic comedy (or, to use the term coined by Stanley Cavell, comedy of remarriage) in which ex-spouses with two healthy egos, producer-director-star Fred Graham and his leading lady Lilli Vanessi, spar their way toward a reconciliation. The misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew generally makes me long for Kiss Me, Kate, so imagine my surprise at finding, in the current Roundabout Theatre Company revival at Studio 54, that the director, Scott Ellis, found it necessary to fix the show, since God forbid audiences – or, evidently critics – should be asked to make allowances for a musical written way back in the dark ages. (The musical opened on Broadway in 1948.) So in this version Katharine sings “I Am Ashamed That People [rather than “Women”] Are So Simple” and the curtain falls discreetly so that we won’t have to see Fred (Will Chase) spank Lilli (Kelli O’Hara) in front of a live audience on opening night. As Ellis has staged the scene, Lilli gives as good as she gets, kicking him hard enough in the ass so that she’s not the only one who isn’t able to sit at the beginning of act two. I like that alteration, just as I like the way “I Hate Men” is staged as a reasonable response to the drunken macho spectacle Katharine is used to seeing guys make of themselves; both are cases of a twenty-first director using his brain. The idea, though, that even with an evenly physically matched Fred and Lilli, our feminist sensibilities might be too tender for us to watch the spanking is embarrassing.

The revival is perfectly okay and quite enjoyable, though it isn’t up to the Kathleen Marshall production from 1999. Will Chase has the right mix of cockiness and soulfulness for Fred/Petruchio, and he’s a robust singer, as those who watched him on the TV series Nashville know. He isn’t as accomplished a satirist as either of his Broadway predecessors, Alfred Drake and Brian Stokes Mitchell, and he doesn’t have the warmth of Howard Keel, who starred in the 1953 movie, but he’s still got plenty to offer. My only quibble with him is that, on a couple of his solos, he indulges in a kind of vocal embroidery that distracts you from the lyric and the character; for a bar or two you feel like you’re listening to the song stylings of recording artist Will Chase. Kelli O’Hara sings magnificently, as one anticipates, especially on the bittersweet ballad “So in Love,” and her complex vulnerability brings new layers to Lilli. But her Katharine is a hard-boiled dame, and that persona doesn’t suit her at all; she doesn’t seem comfortable with it and her performance flattens out. Much as I adore O’Hara, not every soprano role in musical theatre is an ideal match for her; she wasn’t quite right for Babe in The Pajama Game or Ella in Bells Are Ringing or the gamine heroine in Nice Work If You Can Get It, though there were ample compensations in each of these performances. This is the first time, however, that the wrongness of the casting – or at least, of the way she’s chosen or been directed to play the role – has made me wince.

Stephanie Styles came across as grating in her first few scenes as Lois Lane/Bianca, but she won me over by the second act, and “Always True to You in My Fashion,” adroitly choreographed by the gifted Warren Carlyle, is the highlight it ought to be. John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams are pleasant enough as the gangsters, but I’ve seen “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” performed with more panache. I found Terence Archie borderline unbearable as Lilli’s straight-laced Pentagon fiancé Harrison Howell, but it’s a dreadful role, and the way it’s been built up in recent productions, with “From This Moment On” added incongruously as a solo for him, is always a big mistake. (The song was cut from Porter’s 1950 show Out of This World and has been associated with Kiss Me, Kate since it was interpolated, triumphantly, into the film three years later – but as a dance number, a pas de six that included Ann Miller, Tommy Rall, Bobby Van and a very young Bob Fosse.)

The real gems in this revival, for my money, are Corbin Bleu as Lois’s gambling hoofer beau Bill Calhoun (who plays Lucentio in the musical within the musical) and James T. Lane as Paul, Fred’s dresser, who leads the “Too Darn Hot” number in the stage-door alley at the top of the second act. Bleu is a fine dancer with charm to burn but he doesn’t overuse it; he’s also the most generous performer on the stage, at least alongside O’Hara. (Even his curtain call manages to gather in his fellow actors.) Lane is a spectacular dancer, and Carlyle has constructed “Too Darn Hot,” a dazzler of a number, to showcase him. Good choice.

Victoria Clark in  Lady in the Dark. (Photo: Richard Termine)

I don’t think Kiss Me, Kate needs fixing, but Moss Hart’s book for the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark, wherein the sophisticated but unhappy glamor magazine editor Liza Elliott (Gertrude Lawrence, famously, in the original production) has to learn to be more feminine and take orders from a smart-mouthed male underling she turns out to be in love with, is another story. The recent concert production at Lincoln Center featuring Victoria Clark as Liza backed by MasterVoices carries adaptation credits to Christopher Hart and Kim Kowalke, who appear to have eliminated most of the problem lines. Unfortunately they couldn’t turn it into the droll, brittle entertainment it clearly wants to be. The staging by Ted Sperling (who also conducts, more successfully) and off-the-beam choreography by Doug Varone certainly don’t help; neither does the casting of Montego Glover (wonderful in Memphis) in the role of Liza’s assistant and confidante, which should be played by someone who has studied Eve Arden’s style. Except for Clark, who is effortless, and the indispensable David Pittu in the Danny Kaye part, Russell Paxton – he gets to sing “Tchaikowsky” – no one makes much of an impression, though some experienced musical-theatre types (Christopher Innvar, Ron Raines and the opera singer Ben Davis, who was in Call Me Madam for Encores! this season) show up in major roles. Innvar is stuck playing Charley Johnson, the asshole who winds up with Liza so I guess we’re not supposed to think he’s an asshole.

Lady in the Dark is famous for being the first musical to deal with psychoanalysis. Liza sees a shrink (played by Amy Irving) to whom she relates her dreams; there are three of them and they contain all the songs, which were written by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin and are splendiferous. The prettiest one is “My Ship”; the eleven-o’clock number is “The Saga of Jenny,” which no one in my experience has ever performed better than Victoria Clark. By the way, if you’re curious about this admitted curiosity, resist the temptation to watch the 1944 movie version with Ginger Rogers, about which Pauline Kael wrote, “The content is insulting to women; the form is insulting to audiences of both sexes.”

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 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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