Over and above enchanting music and a fantasy love story, this 1947 musical features corrupt politicians, vast economic disparity, blatant racial bigotry, and hope for the future, borrowing a premise from another story whose rainbow is pivotal. Need you ask why now?
How does it hold up? Well, songs are still swell, though somewhat thinner due to a small cast , the two attitudes/subjects remain strange bedfellows, and the piece has been so condensed that its romance proceeds with enough speed to give you whiplash.
Ken Jennings and Melissa Errico; Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico
This is not so say Rainbow Valley, Missatucky (Mississippi and Kentucky) is not an entertaining place to visit. (Whimsy later includes the Shears-Robust catalog.) James Morgan’s charming set, dripping with foliage, flowers, song scores, and storybook sentiment, creates an immediate aura of illuminated make-believe. By the time the small band, replete with lovely harp, begins its mini overture, we’ve settled in with pleasant expectation.
The tobacco growing valley is occupied by black and white denizens who get along just fine, thanks. Because of a proposed dam raising property values, Senator Rawkins (Dewey Waddell – terrific accent and bluster) has sent his right hand man Buzz (Matt Gibson) and the local Sheriff (Peyton Crim) to seize the land from owner and occupants through successive nefarious citations. Our hero, Woody (Ryan Silverman – clean cut presence with an engaging baritone), is determined not to let this happen.
Rawkins is an out and out bigot, neither immigrants nor blacks escape southern condemnation. When Sharon challenges him with The Constitution, the Senator responds,”I haven’t had a chance to read it. I’m too busy defending it.”
Arriving at a critical juncture, ostensibly from Ireland, are Sharon (Melissa Errico, whose lovely trill first buoyed the role a dozen years ago) and her pixilated father Finian (Ken Jennings). Finian carries a carpet bag with a stolen crock of gold he buries, believing proximity to Ft. Knox will make it grow. A Leprechaun named Og, the crock’s rightful owner, has followed them to America. (Dancer Mark Evens-too tall and completely unsympathetic.) Og is becoming more human every day, suddenly pining after every woman he sees.
Unaware she’s standing near the gold, Sharon wishes the Senator was black (so that that he’d experience prejudice). Apparently the crock is invested with three wishes. Horrified, at the color of his skin (and all it implies), Rawkins runs away…returning later to be changed again twice, once internally, once externally. The order of these is particularly important. Word gets out there’s gold in the hills which causes a Rube Goldberg effect of assumptions, solving things. Of course. The company is solid. Solos by Angela Grovey and Kimberly Doreen Burns stand out.
Lyrica Woodruff and The Company
To my mind, the find of the evening is Lyrica Woodruff (Susan the Silent). The performer is utterly captivating. Expressions are innocent, animated, and appropriate. She dances like a dream. Unfortunately, the production saw fit to make her up (the only red lips on the stage) and outfit her like a ballerina in The Nutcracker instead of as a simple, young woman. She looks as if she wandered onto the wrong set.
Director Charlotte Moore has a painterly feel for creating pictures, whether still or moving. The show moves fluidly. Characters’ perspective is well realized. I tend to take issue with any production whose personnel plays to the audience and not each other, however.
Choreographer Barry McNabb does a spritely job with brief dance turns by the cast and a splendid one with Susan’s numbers. Costume Design by David Toser is attractive and cohesive except for Og’s get-up which looks like he’s trying too hard.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: The Company
Music: Burton Lane, Lyrics: E.Y. Harburg, Book: E.Y. Harburg & Fred Saidy
Adapted and Directed by Charlotte Moore
Musical Supervisor: John Bell
Orchestra: Geraldine Anello, Janey Choi, Nina Kellman, Melanie Mason
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Though December 18, 2016
Frank Loesser 1910-1969 was the composer/lyricist who wrote Guys and Dolls, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and The Most Happy Fella, garnering Tony Awards for the first two, the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy for the recording of the second, and multiple nominations for the third. Writing innumerable songs for the hit parade and film, he won The Academy Award in 1949 for “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Susan Loesser tells us her father disdained awards – but kept them.
Loesser apparently got little support from a strict mother and constant criticism from his half-brother. His father, a classical piano teacher, never taught his son. Frank played by ear. Acceptance was a lifetime issue. As a boy, he was “a troublemaker…I think he went in the direction he did partly as rebellion,” Susan tells us. Though Loesser had to go to work when his father died, the young man turned as soon as possible to Tin Pan Alley where he got paid $100 a week for all the songs he could come up with. At this point he was just writing lyrics.
Offered work in Hollywood, his weekly salary rose to $200, but the author retained no rights to over 100 songs written for films. Here he worked with a number of lyricists including Burton Lane, “I Hear Music,” Friedrich Hollander, “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have,” and Hoagy Carmichael, “Heart and Soul” and “Two Sleepy People.” Granat’s graceful, soft-shoe rendition of the last swings like a southern hammock.
Susan remembers her father’s peculiar work habits as sleeping three to four hours, rising at 5 a.m, doing a little writing, having a martini at 11 a.m., doing a little writing, perhaps taking a nap, and going out at night. Our host performs a lilting “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” (written with Jule Styne), feeding us the lyrics. There are always sing-along opportunities at a Granat event. “I’ll be taking this group on the road,” he quips.
Loesser apparently lived by two professional rules: Loud is Good and I write the song, don’t change it. This caused quite an altercation on the set of Guys and Dolls when the author tried to instruct Sinatra how to phrase his work.
World War II Songs included “They’re Either Too Yong or Too Old” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” With the latter, Loesser began writing his own music. The period also produced “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” which Granat renders wistful and wounded with eloquent retards. “His lyrics have a sense of the way people really talk,” our host comments. David Lahm’s piano accompaniment is lovely.
“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” was set in a film during Spring. Susan tells us her father hated its always being performed during the holidays with no awareness/appreciation of original intention. Raised in a Los Angeles home filled with celebrities, “Until we moved to New York, I thought when you grew up you became famous.”
Now a commonly used colloquial, “Slow Boat to China” was a big success for the writer. Granat sings, we join.”Sing Out!” he encourages. The terrific, contrapuntal duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” was created to give Mr. and Mrs. Loesser party material to perform together. When Loesser sold “their song” his wife was very upset.
“Where’s Charlie? , the author’s first Broadway show, featured Ray Bolger “in full female regalia.” Granat (and co.) performs a charming “Once In Love with Amy.” One night Bolger forgot the lyrics. In the audience, producer Cy Feuer’s young son rose and supplied what was missing. Someone suggested the crowd sing along and it became a tradition, wildly popularizing the number. A cottony “I’ve Never Been In Love Before” follows. Small sighs are emitted among us.
“My mother, Lynn, co-produced The Most Happy Fella and was very involved in casting. She went looking for Rosabella, found Jo Sullivan, and said to my father, go hear her sing. You’ll love her. And he did.” Sullivan became both the show’s lead and Loesser’s second wife.
“Somebody Somewhere” (…wants me and needs me…) is stirring and resonant. Susan Loesser seems to look inward briefly before turning to Granat with a small smile. This number particularly touches her. The show was especially important to Loesser because his brother praised it. Everyone seems to know the lyrics to the jaunty “Standing On the Corner.”
The issue with How To Success In Business… was Rudy Vallee who felt he was too big a star to take direction. “I’ve spent a lifetime introducing songs my way…” Vallee so provoked Loesser that the writer quit and stormed off. “It took Feuer five telegrams to get him back,” Susan relates. Loesser wrote that his producer should have hit the egotistical film actor. The last telegram read: Come back! I’ll hit him. Granat cheerily percolates with “I Believe In You.”
Loesser’s last efforts were unsuccessful. Changing musical tastes in the 60s and 70s made him feel both lost and betrayed by Broadway. He set up the licensing organization Music Theater International and mentored upcoming talent. The author died of lung cancer at the young age of 59 leaving a legacy that remains robust today.
Another enjoyable and informative afternoon event with Harvey Granat.
Photos of Frank Loesser Used by Permission of Frank Loesser Enterprises
Opening photo: Harvey Granat, Susan Loesser, David Lahm courtesy of the event
Songs & Stories With Harvey Granat- On Frank Loesser
Special Guest, Loesser’s Daughter and Biographer, Susan Loesser
92 Street Y
92nd Street at Lexington Avenue
NEXT: On Jule Styne with Special Guest Rex Reed – November 10
On Burt Bacharach with Special Guest Will Friedwald – December 8