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A Rediscovered Charmer: Up in Central Park

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In January 1945, you would’ve been able to see Carousel, The Glass Menagerie or Harvey on Broadway. Marlon Brando made his debut in— wait for it—I Remember Mama with Julie Harris. Up in Central Park, the last stage work of Sigmund Romberg produced in his lifetime, began a run of 504 performances. Scenery and costumes pointedly resembled the work of Currier and Ives.

What I frankly assumed to be an old chestnut turns out to be a smart show filled with sweet, waltzing love songs, rousing men’s choruses, a few cheeky tavern numbers (like The Fireman’s Bride) and a comic turn or two. Not unlike any classic book musical. The lyrics are by and large literate and universal. (There’s one corny, “Mountie-like” number-see whether you can pick it out—and an ode to Rip Van Winkle which arises out of nowhere.) Quite a few of these songs might be lifted by any able cabaret singer today. Voices are full, sure and predominantly on key. When the ensemble holds forth, the theater fills with rich, textured sound.

Summer 1870. Timothy (John Alban Coughlan) is the immigrant Irish foreman of a crew hired with his friend, Danny (Richard G. Rodgers), to re-landscape the up till then sacrosanct, Central Park (opened in 1857.) They’re understandably grateful for the jobs. Danny’s daughter, Rosie (Natalie Newman) and her best friend Bessie (Chelsea Barker) aspire to raise themselves, through talent and marriage Up From the Gutter. Rosie sings, Bessie dances. A favorite pastime is to dress up and stand outside fine hotels, looking through the windows, watching well heeled denizens taking tea. It seems a more innocent time, one of swishing skirts, conservative manners and traditional values. It is not.

Investigative journalist, John Matthews (Scott Guthrie), and caricaturist, Thomas Nast (Travis Morin) arrive in the park to interview Danny as part of their efforts to expose the political corruption of William Macy, “Boss” Tweed (Peter Cormican). Clouds gather. Tweed, head of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine, a congressman and vast land owner, effectively controlled New York City and environs by selectively doling out contracts. Eventually convicted for stealing an amount estimated at between $25 and $45 million from New York City taxpayers, he paid, for example, $25 for each park bench, charging the city $200 and $2 for a bag of grass seed, charging the city $50.

Though politics run through Up in Central Park, like vertebrae , they’re not the meat of the musical. This is an old fashioned love story. Rosie and John are drawn to one another. “It doesn’t cost you anything to dream/The sun and moon are cheap as long as you’re asleep” they sing in one of several lyrical, tuneful duets. She wants to sing like Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” popularized here by P.T. Barnum. He wants to write the truth and not be disciplined. John suggests she study in Boston. He’ll visit. They’ll correspond.

The lovers come together only to be ripped apart by John’s campaign, which inadvertently affects Rosie (and Bessie’s) fathers as well as the girl’s own personal relationships. The girls are both blinded by the professional positions and dazzling lifestyle offered by Tweed’s men. When Bessie feigns a skating accident in front of a popular dancer from The Central Park Gardens (whose partner she’s read, has just left to get married), she “wakes” to find herself on a couch in The Stetson Hotel. “…on the inside?!” she asks with incredulous delight. Bessie and Rosie are easily seduced; Bessie by all that glitters, Rosie by prestigious employment and in defiance of what she assumes to be John’s wrong thinking. Of course, it all comes out right in the end. “The whole of New York has a cleaner face.” But you knew that.

Natalie Newman’s Rosie is captivating. Innocence, stubbornness, petulance, ambition, and coquetry, are played with veracity. Newman is immediately both recognizable and sympathetic. Her ready expressiveness never exceeds that which is believable and appropriate to the piece. Her voice is pretty and filled with feeling.

Chelsea Barker (Bessie), manages to define her character’s rougher edges in contrast to her friend’s more genteel manner. Creating the brash, excitable second banana, Barker gives an appealing performance. Her wide eyed responses and excellent timing in The Birds and the Bees (an otherwise minor song) is especially pleasing.

As John, Scott Guthrie seems every bit the leading man. Choosing, one assumes with the director, not to appear an ingénue himself, his presentation of the journalist from a background that couldn’t be more different from Rosie’s, offers a kind of sobriety to what might otherwise have been two saccharine kids in love. Offering a portrayal economic with exhibited feelings, the actor makes a mere rising of shoulders in deep breath appreciation of his lover a real “moment.”

John Alban Coughlan (Rosie’s father, Timothy) seems suitably puzzled by goings-on he can’t quite grasp; proud to have been chosen, unaware of the extent of his unlawful involvement. It’s a nicely gruff interpretation, though the accent is a bit questionable.

Travis Moran (Nast) has an excellent voice and solid, sincere stage presence. One hopes he’ll be given a larger part in another production.

Peter Cormican gives us the larger than life cocky, uncouth Tweed in spades. Swaggering and loud, his deep baritone cowing those in his presence, Cornican aptly fills the character’s shoes.

Thomas Sabella-Mills (Director & Choreographer) has done a wonderful job with the piece.The stage is attractively and interestingly utilized by a large cast. Choreographed numbers like When She Walks into the Room and When the Party Gives a Party (as accurate a satire today as when it was written) are jaunty and well staged. Duets are deftly enacted in accordance with his characters’ states of mind. Variation in the excess of musical scenes expected in plays of the time (yes, the play is long) helps carry the story along with zest.

James Stenborg (Musical Director) engineers abundant imaginative harmonies in resounding ensemble numbers as well as providing spot-on tone and timing to solos. His craftsmanship is apparent throughout.

A surprisingly entertaining evening at an even more surprisingly low tariff, I’d encourage especially those of you unfamiliar with Musicals Tonight to put a toe in the water with this one. It’s entertaining fun. And unlikely to be produced again for a very long time.

Photo credit: Michael Portantiere

Top photo: Nast (Travis Morin), John (Scott Guthrie) and Rosie (Natalie Newman)
Middle photo: Bessie on the left (Chelsea Barker), Rosie on the right (Natalie Newman)

Up in Central Park (1945)
Dorothy Fields, Libretto & Lyrics
Herbert Fields, Libretto
Sigmund Romberg, Music
Musicals Tonight
The McGinn/Cazale Theater
2162 Broadway (76/77th Sts)
212 579 4230
www.musicalstonight.org
April 5-10, 2011

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