Monday, July 31, 2023

Summer Musicals: Summer Stock and Gypsy

Corbin Bleu and the dancers in Summer Stock. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Summer Stock, released in 1950, followed a particularly unhappy time in Judy Garland’s life and career – after the deterioration of her marriage to the director Vincente Minnelli, after she made her first suicide attempt and was committed to a rehab center, and after M-G-M replaced her on Annie Get Your Gun with Betty Hutton. Yet it feels like a breather for her: though her weight fluctuated during the filming (in her last big number, “Get Happy,” she’s strikingly trim), her performance is ebullient and unstrained. It was her third and final pairing with Gene Kelly – the others were For Me and My Gal in 1942 (his film debut, after he’d conquered Broadway in Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey) and The Pirate, for Minnelli, in 1948 – and his warmth and virility, his earthiness and easy jocularity, always brought out an appealing vaudevillian quality in her. None of her other co-stars was so ideal a vocal match for her, and though it’s great to see her with Fred Astaire in Easter Parade (1948), especially in the “Couple of Swells” number, when she and Kelly dance together they seem to belong to the same club. Summer Stock (which Charles Walters directed) is lightweight, and there’s nothing much in the George Wells-Sy Gomberg script that hadn’t been done in previous backstage movie musicals like the ones Garland and Mickey Rooney co-starred in, or Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn. Garland plays Jane Falbury, who’s struggling to keep her farm from going under, and Kelly is Joe Ross, who persuades her to let him produce a show in her barn. But it never pushes the sweetness or the rural Americana, it has a fine supporting cast (except for Gloria De Haven as Jane’s self-centered sister: her acting is really awful), and Garland and Kelly’s scenes together are endearing.

The stage adaptation, premiering at the Goodspeed Opera House, pads the material. It’s nearly three hours long, and most of it is in the form of songs, so many from the annals of the American songbook that it’s practically a jukebox musical. In addition to three songs salvaged from the original score by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon (the ballad “You Wonderful You,” “Dig for Your Dinner” and the cheerful “Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest,” which sticks in your brain) and “Get Happy,” the 1930 Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler tune interpolated for Garland, the show has added eighteen other songs, most of them well-known. That amounts to roughly a new song (or dance) every five minutes. There’s a book writer, Cheri Steinkellner, but the scenes don’t do much besides linking the numbers. They certainly don’t build the characters, so the hard-working actors are stuck. As Joe, Corbin Bleu, who was splendid as Bill Calhoun in the 2019 Broadway revival of Kiss Me, Kate, sings well and dances superbly, but his role feels cobbled together, and you can’t make sense out of his relationship with Jane (played by Danielle Wade), who dislikes him at first sight and doesn’t get over it until she takes over the part originally intended for her sister Gloria (Arianna Rosario) and winds up winning him away from her. Wade can also sing and dance, and the “Get Happy” number, which more or less replicates the version from the movie, is one of the highlights of the evening. But she can’t surmount the unpleasantness of the character, who is bafflingly snide and sarcastic with Joe. In act two he apologizes to her for his behavior, but she’s the one who should be offering the apology – he hasn’t done anything wrong as far as we can see.

Some of the supporting players try to compensate for the vacuous writing by hamming it up: Veanne Cox as the villainess who wants to buy up every farm in the Connecticut county, J. Anthony Crane as the single big name in the cast of Joe’s show, and – at least in the first act – Gilbert L. Bailey as the writer, Joe’s army buddy Phil. (The time period of the play is the same as the movie’s.) That’s more or less the part Phil Silvers played on screen, and Bailey is winning when he sings and dances, especially with Bleu on the DeSylva-Brown-Henderson “Lucky Day.” Steinkellner has added a fatuous romantic subplot for Cox and Crane; you just have to wait out their scenes. The only comic in the cast who never pushes is Will Roland as Cox’s henpecked son Orville (Eddie Bracken in the film), who grew up with Jane and whom everyone expects to marry her. The book doesn’t do much for him either, but Roland does it for himself – he makes Orville into a flesh-and-blood creation. He’s the most likable performer on the stage.

The show was directed and choreographed by Donna Feore, whose musicals for the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival have made her famous in Canada.  About half a dozen of the dance numbers are genuinely good, especially “Dig for Your Dinner, the aforementioned “Get Happy” and “Joe’s Dance,” which is a variation on Kelly’s wonderful dance solo in the picture. I might have enjoyed more of the songs if they hadn’t been packed in and if Steinkellner hadn’t rewritten so many of the lyrics (she doesn’t improve on them) – and if more of them fit the dramatic situations. Jane is established as the pragmatist among the two sisters, yet she has to sing “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” and “Red Hot Mama” and “Some of These Days” in the context of the plot are head scratchers. Tina McCartney’s costumes are fun, but this is that rare Goodspeed show with a dull scenic design (by Wilson Chin). So far the Goodspeed hasn’t been at its best with transmuted movies (Holiday Inn, Christmas in Connecticut).

Julie Lumsden and Kate Hennig in Gypsy. (Photo: David Cooper)

Goodspeed certainly shone in its springtime production, the great Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim Gypsy. By comparison, the version on view at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer is underwhelming, though it has a lovely, antiquated (if rather too square-ish) set and nifty period costumes, both by Cory Sincennes, and Kevin Fraser’s lighting is excellent. One of the two central problems is the staging by Jay Turvey and choreographer Genny Sermonia. Turvey is in love with straight lines and symmetry, and visual ideas that Laurents put in the script and that almost always seem to work, like the sequence where Momma Rose (Kate Hennig), hitching west with her two daughters, picks up boys for their act as she goes, feel stiff and awkward here. None of the farce scenes looks right, and the familiar vaudeville tricks kill “Have an Egg Roll, Mr. Goldstone” in act one and “Together Wherever We Go” in act two. What undercuts the first-act finale, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” is the way Turvey has Rose marching back and forth across the stage while her daughter Louise and her lover-cum-agent Herbie (played by Julie Lumsden and Jason Cadieux, who are both good) stand center stage – exactly where they shouldn’t be, given that the song is a full-scale treatment of Rose’s bulldozing narcissism.

The other problem is the casting of Hennig. She’s a strong actress, she has the character’s toughness down, and her takes on both “Some People,” Rose’s first solo, and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” are effective. She’s outstanding in the scene where Rose ushers Louise into burlesque. But Momma Rose is the greatest diva role in the musical theatre repertory, and Hennig doesn’t have the requisite charisma or the whirlwind drive; her Rose is more of an obstacle course. We can’t see what would draw Herbie to her except her humor, and he doesn’t just want to listen to her jokes; he wants to sleep with her. The biggest letdown in the show is “Rose’s Turn,” which Styne and Sondheim wrote to dramatize her life-long frustration at being relegated to the wings while her kids, first June (Ariana Abudaqa, who grows into Madelyn Kriese) and then Louise (Hannah Otta in the early scenes), take the stage. It’s Rose’s fantasy number; we should feel that she’s a knockout and then realize, in the middle of the ovation she’s earned, that we’re colluding in her self-delusion. That’s what happened when Tyne Daly played it, and Patti LuPone, and Goodspeed’s Judy McLane. But in this production we’re clearly meant to think that she’s just an amateur, and that’s a dreadful mistake. Weirdly, Sermonia has staged a different song as a dream number, “All I Need Is the Girl,” adding choreography for Louise so that we see it as her fantasy as well as the aspiring dancer Tulsa (Drew Plummer), on whom she has an adolescent crush until he elopes with June at the end of the first act. It doesn’t work, because neither Lumsden nor Plummer is the right kind of dancer to pull it off.

The show isn’t bad; it just isn’t good enough. It has its virtues, like the dazed, almost dissociated way Abudaqa performs the various permutations of Baby June’s “Let Me Entertain You,” always with her mouth open. Kriese doesn’t make as strong an impression as the adolescent June – when she and Lumsden sing “If Momma Was Married” together, Kriese directs all her lyrics as well as the dialogue preamble straight front. Jenni Burke, Krystle Chance and √Člodie Gillett make “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” as funny as it should be. Mike Nadajewski does a lot with his one scene as Rose’s fed-up father, who tells her she’s going to leave her kids just as her mother left her; the cruelty of his remark – which, as it happens, couldn’t be more off base – is like a whip slashing across her face. Nadajewski’s work with Hennig fleshes out a poisonous father-daughter relationship; we realize they’ve been driving each other crazy all Rose’s life. That’s not a corner of the musical that most editions give this much attention to, and the two actors deserve credit for filling it in.

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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