Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pipe Dream Plays Encores! at New York City Center

New Yorkers actively engaged with the splendors of the Great American Songbook could do no better than making a regular pilgrimage to New York’s City Center for the Encores! series of musical revivals.  Encores! is dedicated to presenting rarely revived or otherwise little-known musicals complete with full book and score.  Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman have done a wonderful service for theater-lovers and anyone interested in our musical heritage.  Encores! has played at City Center since 1994 and your correspondent has had more enjoyable nights at the theater in this venue than through any other in the city.  The recently renovated City Center is a glorious site, and to see classic musicals in this space is one of the privileges of living in the city.

The second show for the 2012 season is Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s little-seen (and littler appreciated) Pipe Dream, which originally opened in 1955.  It was their seventh show and a monumental flop.  Rodgers and Hammerstein had originally conceived of a stellar cast including Henry Fonda and, possibly, Julie Andrews or Janet Leigh.  These plans never came to fruition and the show’s eventual cast, including Helen Traubel and William Johnson, later came to believe the show was cursed.

Part of the original problem must have been the source material – John Steinbeck’s short novel Sweet Thursday, his sequel to Cannery Row.  Though it has the charm of being the only Broadway musical about a marine biologist and a prostitute, the original devastating reviews destroyed any hopes of a national tour or London production. 

So how does the new Encores! production play?  In three words: it’s just great.

Briefly: Doc, a marine biologist, lives his life free and happy.  He spends a great deal of time with his friends, beachcomber Mac and not-too-bright sidekick Hazel (actually a man with a woman’s name – his mother was not too bright, either).  He also spends a great deal of time with the prostitutes at Fauna’s house of ill repute.

Into his life comes Suzy, down on her luck.  Though she also ends up in Fauna’s house, she challenges Doc to be more than he is.  Eventually, they both grow into more ambitious and connected people, and fall in love.

Never a fan of the Rodgers and Hammerstein corpus, I must confess that this was the first time I’ve found a score of theirs to be … jaunty.  Writing about beach bums and loose women seem to have liberated their staid sensibilities, and both create a score that is bouncy, loose and fun.  The song Sweet Thursday has all the pizazz of a classic 1930s jazz number, and Thinkin’ is certainly the finest comic song in their repertoire.  Also terrific The Next Time it Happens and All At Once You Love Her, simply their most lilting first act closer.  One cannot but help think that a more ‘respectable’ show would’ve elevated several of these numbers into standards.

The cast is uniformly fine, with particular standouts being Tom Wopat and Leslie Uggams.  Wopat, once one of Broadway’s most trustworthy leading men, seems to be comfortably seguing into character parts and Uggams has a certain glamour that makes her compulsively watchable.  Television star Will Chase, as the hero Doc, is an extremely pleasing and handsome presence, and Laura Osnes sings Suzy with a warm and lilting grace.  Also effective is Stephen Wallem in the one-note role of Hazel – he manages to make what could be an annoying caricature a true comic turn.

It seems impossible that a show that features a reenactment of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in a whorehouse could be one of the sweetest things on Broadway, but that happens to be the case.  Kudos to the Encores! team for reviving this little-known show – this limited engagement is highly recommended!

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