This show sounded like a good idea on paper…an adaptation of a classic film that was hardly an obvious choice but did have musical possibilities, delivered by a creative team dripping with talent. And yet the near-unanimous consensus was that the result was simply painful to watch.
Distinguished playwright John Gaure’s book manages to produce a few quotable quips in the Walter Winchell vein (“Learn the difference between men and pigs: pigs don’t turn into men when they drink”), but it tries to find emotion and humanity in the film’s brutal story while failing to make the two unscrupulous rogues at the center of the story likable or charming enough for us to be able to care about either of them.
Combined with the deafening intensity of much of the music and the viciously in-your-face direction, the show certainly achieves the sour cynicism the source material called for, but in a way that just came off as unpleasant when displayed as two hours of theater.
On top of that, the two key leads are miscast. Brian D’Arcy-James is suitably sleazy on his introductory sales-patter solo and sings beautifully on the ironically soaring anthem “At the Fountain”, but he never really found Sidney’s character—the writers of the musical attempted to make Sydney more sympathetic without ever really committing to their decision, and as a result, James seems unsure himself as to whether we’re supposed to sympathize with him or not.
And John Lithgow, as all-powerful columnist J.J. Hunsucker, is an unconvincing substitute for Burt Lancaster’s terrifying performance in the film. He’s got a suitable air of class and brings a nice touch of humanity to the character in his gentle waltz “For Susan”, but Lithgow has always been limited by his own persona, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do to make John Lithgow scary.
Nevertheless, the cast album makes it clear that the show had a largely marvelous score: the combination of Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia promised no less, and whatever may have been wrong with the show on stage, they delivered in full, doing a much more effective job of finding emotion in the story than the book did.
Admittedly, even the cast album has one out-and-out dud on it—“Don’t Look Now”, an attempt at an ironically light-hearted solo for Lithgow that just comes across as fatuous and out-of-place even on record. But the jagged jazziness of the choral music, which came off as overwhelming and abrasive on stage, is striking and even thrilling on the cast album, and there are several glorious ballads (“I Cannot Hear the City”, “Don’t Know Where You Leave Off”, the extraneous but irresistible “Rita’s Tune”).
Jack Noseworthy, as the young romantic lead, soars in his ballads and delivers the sexy scatting showcase “One Track Mind” with panache, and Kelli O’Hara is a force of nature, giving new life to a fairly colorless character from the film and making a stunning debut that clearly forsages all the great things she would achieve in the coming decade.
Hamlisch’s more ambitious efforts were always his best: he did produce several wonderful conventional pop songs such as “The Way We Were” and the score of They’re Playing Our Song, but he always did his greatest work when he had real dramatic content to work with, and this is perhaps his greatest stage score next to A Chorus Line. At any rate, it’s his last now, and for all the show’s faults, it’s a worthy swan song.