Tuesday, January 17, 2012

REVIEW: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Review of the Saturday, January 14 matinee performance at the St. James Theatre in New York City, NY.  Starring Harry Connick, Jr., David Turner and Jessie Mueller, with Drew Gehling, Sarah Stiles and Kerry O'Malley.  Music by Burton Lane.  Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.  Original book by Alan Jay Lerner.  New book by Peter Parnell.  Re-conceived by Michael Mayer.  Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter.  Direction by Michael Mayer.  2 hours, 45 minutes, including intermission.  Mild sexual content.  Closes January 29.

Grade: C--

Like just about all shows, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever is not as bad as its worst reviews and not as good as its best review.  On paper, the re-conception of this troubled 60's musical sounds interesting and even possibly an improvement.  And who would have been better to have brought this new take and potentially boundary pushing idea to the stage than the guy who brought us both Spring Awakening and American Idiot, Michael Mayer.  Both shows are the poster children for creating new norms for the Broadway musical.  So it is somewhat shocking and completely disappointing to report that despite all of his talk about gender switching characters and worrying that we might call it "On a Queer Day," it was all talk and no results.  By and large, the disappointment at potential untapped far outweighs the few things that are praise-worthy.

There must be some irony in the inclusion of an audience opinion survey in the Playbill  when the show is closing.  It asks 3 key questions: What did [I] like most about On a Clear Day?  What did [I] like least? and Would I be recommending the show to others?

The Things I Liked Most About On a Clear Day You Can See Forever:

1.  The Score:  The Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner score is rather good.  There are peppy Broadway-style tunes, soul searching ballads and some zippy period style numbers that even vaguely fit the shift to 1974.  And the jazzy, torchy numbers interpolated from the pair's Royal Wedding are a perfect fit for our time travel back to the 40's.  Particular standouts include the exuberant "Hurry!  It's Lovely Up Here!", "Wait 'Til We're Sixty-Five," "Ev'ry Night at Seven," and the title number. And the orchestrations by Doug Besterman are lush and period (70's and 40's) perfect, and played by a great 20 piece orchestra.  Equally terrific are the vocal and dance arrangements by Lawrence Yuman, who is also the show's conductor.

"Ev'ry Nght at Seven"

2.  The Choreography:  JoAnn M. Hunter has created some fun throw back dances that feel both genuine and in tribute to the actual 60's/70's  moves she's recreated.  The small ensemble dances well together, and fills up the stage in an old-fashioned, pleasant way that has lately in other shows come across as busy and approximated.  "On the S.S. Bernard Cohn" and "When I'm Being Born Again" are both crowd-pleasing and look like they are fun to be in.  I wish there had been more chances for all out production numbers.

3.  A Dancing Ensemble of (Soon-to-Be) Broadway Stars:  It is no wonder that the small dancing ensemble that doubles as a psychology class is brimming with talent, led by the vivacious and charming Sarah Stiles (Spelling Bee, Avenue Q) who plays David's best gal pal.  And there is the always reliable Tyler Maynard (Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, Altar Boyz), Benjamin Eakeley (Sweeney Todd), Zachary Prince (Baby, It's You!, Jersey Boys), Alysha Umphress (American Idiot, Bring It On) and Alex Ellis (Catch Me If You Can).  They are fun to watch!  There is also Drew Gehling who plays David's boyfriend; he sings very well and is charming enough to believe that they'd be partners.  He'd probably make even more of an impression if the material he had to work with wasn't so pedestrian.

4.  The Debut of Jessie Mueller:  Man, can this girl sing!  And as we delve further and further back in time for our revivals, she should be the go-to girl for that distinctive and hard to replicate 30's/40's sound.  Ms. Mueller seems born to sing like gals of yore.  Her instrument is clear as a bell, and her stylings are spot-on.  Her belt is amazing, particularly in "Ev'ry Night at Seven."  Her acting is good - one wonders what she might do with better material - and she has good chemistry with her leading man.  Sparks flying would be too much to ask for, but they are mildly "aww" worthy.

Jessie Mueller and Harry Connick, Jr.

5.  The Wonder That is David Turner: He's impossibly cute, oozes charisma even when he is sitting still, dances like Astaire and sings like a bird (what a nice belt).  He knows how to portray gay without being a swishy stereotype, and you just want to run up on that stage and hug him.  Plus, so very few of us can pull off 70's polyester sweaters, striped hip-huggers and platform boots, let alone dance in them.  He is also the only person on that stage that looks like he's actually enjoying himself.  PLEASE, find this talented guy a hit show and a role worthy of his significant gifts.

David Turner

The Things I Liked Least About On a Clear Day You Can See Forever:

1.  The Set Design: Mike, who saw the show with me, suggested that perhaps designer Christine Jones should be made to return her Tony Award in exchange for forgiveness for the atrocity that is on display currently at the St, James Theatre.  I couldn't agree more.  Whoever OK'd the psych test design bears some responsibility, too.  An obvious symbol of psychology games so en vogue in the 70's, the result is that everywhere you look, you are distracted by patterns that seem to move in front of your eyes - dizzying and nauseating.  The absolute pinnacle of the ugliness is the "blooming" colorful  barrage of patterns that appear to crawl from the back wall, down the floor and overhead during the finale.  In short, it is ugly, not clever.

2.  The Lighting Design:  Second only to the ineptitude of the scenic design is the shocking lack of thought given to the lighting design.  It pains me to even admit that it is the "work" of my favorite designer Kevin Adams.  His community theatre level design consists of three elements.  One is some rather bland use of spotlights.  The second is the use of full stage washes, where the entire stage is one color at any given time (he uses a similar technique on the blank backdrop upstage).  It is plain, appropriately enough, given the designs on the walls, but it certainly isn't very creative or interesting.  And third, is an element I'll bet people who were seated downstairs didn't even notice until act two.  Every time something "psychological" happens - hypnosis, psychotic break - a whirling spiral that the old "Twilight Zone" TV show used to use shows up on the floor.  During act two, you can see the same on the walls for some inexplicable reason.

Kerry O'Malley

3.  Some Bad Acting in Supporting Roles:  If there were an award for most boring performance of the season, it would easily go to Kerry O'Malley, who walks through her role as colleague to our leading   man, with an over the top anger that comes across like more nagging than concern covering unrequited love. Maybe she's pissed that 10 years after Into the Woods she still isn't a Broadway star.  Maybe she's mad that her leading man isn't Hugh Jackman.  And there is Lori Wilner who plays her small role of secretary with a sharp tongue (on Broadway all secretaries are witty like that, right?) like she's got the comic chops of  Lucille Ball (she's not even as funny as Joan Rivers, no offense to Joan).  And there's Paul O'Brien who clearly does not enjoy his job.  People often ask me what I mean when I say and actor is "calling it in" need only attend this show and watch Mr. O'Brien.  Unprofessional defined.

4.  Poor Sound Design: Peter Hylenski is responsible for the fact that nearly every solo number that is sung in the show is garbled by a slurred sound coming from the body mics and an over-amplification of the orchestra.  When Harry Connick Jr. can't be heard clearly over a small orchestra you know there is a problem.  There are whole songs that I couldn't identify a single lyric, not even the title of the song.  Thank goodness the orchestra sounded good.

5. Boring Direction:  OK, so Clear Day isn't a ground-breaking work like Michael Mayer's most recent works, but it doesn't mean he should throw in the towel.  Michael, you of all people should know that you are only as good as your last show.  And since it YOUR re-conception, you'd think you'd put a little more effort in.  Sure, the show is a traditional, old school musical, but have you seen The Book of Mormon?  Traditional can still be fun and exciting, Michael.  Of course, the material you are working with isn't all that exciting.  Oh, wait. The material is your idea.

David Turner and Drew Gehling

6.  An Incomplete Book and Concept:  As I said earlier, if anyone could push the boundaries with this re-conception, it is Michael Mayer.  But something went horribly wrong.  Book writer Peter Parnell seems to have ironed out the confusion of the plot.  You can follow the story easily.  But then, if you think about it, so many things don't make sense, though most of it would have been cleared up if Mayer and Parnell had been daring enough to to really go there and address the homosexual issues the re-conception brings up.  Had he actually "gone there,"  addressed the pink elephant in the room, pushed the boundary a bit, more of it would make sense.  Why he never really addresses the fact that the male psychiatrist is in love with a female past life entity, but should only really be seeing a man in front of him is beyond me.  And it opens up many other questions:  If the doctor really sees a woman (not to mention other people associated with the woman - co-workers, fellow singers, etc.) and not the man in front of him, is the doctor mentally ill?  Is he seeing a man and loving his feminine persona?  If so, is there some latent homosexuality in the doctor?  While I'm glad he didn't make David Turner do drag, there had to be a better way to let us see everything going on between all three parties - doctor, patient and alter ego.  Actually, there are two glimpses that show us what might have been.  When all three dance together in "You're All the World to Me" (kudos again to Hunter) and at the last split second of act one when we see what the doctor really sees: his male patient, and the doctor moves in to kiss the alter ego.  If Mayer was worried about the audience reaction, he didn't need to: both instances drew applause and delighted laughter from the audience.  For shame, Michael Mayer.  You really chickened out.  And it is very obvious.

Harry Connick, Jr.

7.  A Boring Leading Man:  Clearly, the key to this version isn't in the patient, but rather in the doctor.  Even the advertising tells us that he is the key.  And why else hire someone with the stature of Harry Connick, Jr.?  He can certainly sing the role, and I've seen him be funny on TV.  But here, he takes bland to all new levels.  He stands perfectly still for the majority of his songs and is so stiff, one nudge would tip him over.  Any chemistry that exists between him and his co-stars is coming from his co-stars.  The only glimpse we get of him even remotely enjoying himself is during a scene where he is trying telepathy to bring his patient back.  The audience eats him up, and why not?  It is pretty much the only time he looks like he is enjoying himself.  And I'll bet at least 75% of the audience was there to see him, not the show.  Bad form, Harry.  Bad form.

So, as for that last survey question: Would [I] recommend On a Clear Day You Can See Forever to others?  With 5 things to recommend and 7 things to avoid, I think the answer is clear: Not really.  Maybe only to musical theatre enthusiasts with a need to see each production in a Broadway season.  And that covers me and Mike.  So... if you need to see everything, get there quick  Forever ends on January 29.  If you don't, I'd spend my money on something else.

(Production photos by Nicole Rivelli)

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