Monday, May 27, 2019

The Flamingo Kid: Bare Bones

Alex Wyse, Jimmy Brewer, and Ben Fankhauser in The Flamingo Kid. (Photo: T. Charles Rickson)

In The Flamingo Kid, the new musical premiering at Hartford Stage, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, an impressionable Brooklyn teenager named Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) spends the summer before college – the summer of 1962 – as a cabana boy at a posh Long Island club. There he loses his virginity to a beautiful, grounded UCLA freshman (Samantha Massell) and gets swept up in the lifestyle and values of her uncle, a car salesman named Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) who is legendary for his finesse at gin rummy. The book, like the screenplay of the 1984 Gary Marshall movie on which it’s based, pits Jeffrey’s real father, Arthur (Adam Heller), an honest, industrious plumber who wants his son to get a college education, against Brody, who is all flash and offers the kid the appeal of an entrĂ©e into the high life – though it’s clear to us that, to Phil’s brittle, unhappy wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) and the rest of the El Flamingo clientele, Jeffrey will always be “the cabana boy” (whose shapely ass the sex-starved women are forever ogling or pinching). The material, set firmly in the world of New York Jews, is all about class – and it’s rigged. We don’t have to be told that Phil cheats at cards just as he cheats on his wife, and that Jeffrey, who’s a good kid, will ultimately expose him (while he slaughters him in a legit card game) and choose his father’s square, unvarnished life over Brody’s superficial one, which is both morally and emotionally vacuous. If the seductive car salesman weren’t such a transparent phony and Jeffrey’s parents (his mother, Ruth, is played by Liz Larsen) weren’t so solid and decent – if we could sympathize with the boy’s restlessness with his Brooklyn roots and his fascination with Brody – then the musical (and the movie) might be more than a pat fable. But even Karla, Jeffrey’s girl, is drawn to the Winnicks the moment she meets them and appalled at his insensitive treatment of them.

The movie wasn’t much good aside from Matt Dillon’s performance as Jeffrey, but Marshall gave it some tarnished charm and the setting was fun. The musical is strictly bare bones, though the veteran director, Hartford Stage’s outgoing artistic director Darko Tresnjak, keeps it moving, and the choreography by Denis Jones, which includes a rhumba contest number led by Margherita and Omar Lopez-Cepero, is lively and enjoyable. (Jones gets a lot more to do here than in his other current musical, Tootsie.) There’s little variety in Alexander Dodge’s scenic design, Linda Cho’s costumes, Frankel’s music or the performances, including those of obviously talented actor-singers like Heller and Margherita, who are saddled with in-your-face, melodramatic showcase solos like “This Is My House” (for Arthur) and “The Cookie Crumbles” (for Phyllis). (“The Cookie Crumbles” is third-generation Sondheim: Freedman and Frankel obviously derived it from bitter explosions like “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company and “Will I Leave You?,” written for another Phyllis, the disillusioned diplomat’s frau in Follies.) And Kudisch, a splendid show singer who gave a fine, complex performance at the Public last fall in The Girl from the North Country, is merely diminished by the caricatured role of Phil Brody, which, hemmed in the limitations of the writing, he overplays. Larsen is likable as Ruth Winnick, and as Karla Massell has a sweet, modest quality, though Freedman might have given her a little color; her only character description seems to be that she lives in southern California. Brewer sings and dances skillfully, but he’s way too show-biz for the adolescent hero of a coming-of-age story, and he doesn’t seem especially well cast. I prefer both of the young actors who play his amigos, Alex Wyse and Ben Frankhauser.

Frankel’s scores are generally mixed bags, but both Grey Gardens and War Paint contain some lovely ballads, whereas nothing in the music for The Flamingo Kid stands out except the exuberant ensemble number “Sweet Ginger Brown.” Freedman, who came up with some clever rhymes in his Tony Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (which also began at Hartford Stage), manages a few early on in “The World According to Phil,” but most of the lyrics are pretty bald. (Arthur’s self-defining song “A Plumber Knows” is so perfunctory as to be rather embarrassing; I’d say the same is true of “This Is My Home.”) Freedman is also listed as book writer, but there’s so little dialogue that calling it a book is a bit of a joke. A Gentleman’s Guide contained way, way too many songs; the score for The Flamingo Kid has twenty-seven of them, including reprises. Musical theatre in the twenty-first century seems to have regressed to the world of operetta, which Jerome Kern and his collaborators, P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, succeeded in freeing it from in the 1910s. I’ve heard complaints that contemporary musicals rely too heavily on cinematic sources, but to my mind the real problem is that they rarely bother dramatizing those sources anymore; they just line up songs. Freedman isn’t working as a dramatic writer but as his own disc jockey.

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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