Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Theater Review: On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

The morning after Barbara Harris opened in The Apple Tree at the Shubert in October of 1966, Walter Kerr in the New York Times noted that Harris is “exquisite, appetizing, alarming, seductive, out of her mind, irresistible and from now on unavoidable.” I had seen the performance, but I made it a habit to get to the Shubert from time to time (a standing room ticket cost something like $2.40 in those days) to witness the magic at least six more times.

It was especially rewarding to watch Harris then because exactly one year earlier I saw her perform stoically in a mess of a show entitled On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. And although Burton Lane’s musical score was extraordinarily lilting, the work’s book about a woman with ESP was thin and often incomprehensible. Alan Jay Lerner’s libretto dealt with a young woman named Daisy Gamble (Harris) who is being treated by a Freudian analyst for a smoking habit. It is when she is under hypnosis that the doctor appears to be falling in love with Melinda, the person Daisy was in a past life. Alan Jay Lerner’s book might have been deadly dull, but Burton Lane’s score was a melodic marvel.

A revival of the 1965 musical at the St. James, which stars Harry Connick Jr., fares slightly better. This time Peter Parnell’s revised book, set in 1974, centers around Mark Bruckner (Harry Connick, Jr.), a psychiatrist who reluctantly agrees to treat a young, gay florist’s assistant, David Gamble (David Turner), for a smoking addiction. If he were to be cured, David feels, his boyfriend will agree to marry him. While under hypnosis, the addicted lad divulges that he had previously existed as Melinda Wells (Jessie Mueller), a jazz singer in the 1940s. It is Melinda who apparently interests the psychiatrist and that’s the reason the young man is asked to return for more sessions. Melinda, it appears, is the only one who can make the psychiatrist stop grieving for his deceased wife. (I should note here that Mueller is a suave, brassy belter, and there were moments when she evoked Garland.)

The new libretto might be somewhat more effective than the work’s original book, but it is still often obtuse and inane. The pop art, bright sets by Christine Jones are appealing; and so, too, are Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes. Credit Jo-Ann M.Hunter for some energetic (but unoriginal) choreography. However, it is the memorably buoyant musical numbers that keep the show alive. Some of the songs have been lifted from other Lerner and Lane works. A favorite, for example, is “Too Late Now” (“Too late now to forget your smile/The way we’d cling when we danced awhile...”) from Royal Wedding (1951), the movie musical that featured Fred Astaire and Jane Powell.

Still, the musical has been damaged once again by another bizarre book. Michael Stewart, the Broadway librettist, appears to have been stymied. He has moved the story forward by ten years. But by changing the time period, adding a gay counterplot and focusing on the psychologist, there hasn’t been much done to improve the libretto. And yet, Michael Mayer, the show’s director, does what he can to hold our attention.

It’s fair and logical to assume that most of the audience was at the St. James to see and hear Harry Connick Jr. And he does a great deal to bring Bruckner, a man beset by various troubles, to vibrant life. The show’s book, however, remains its primary problem. After playwright James Kirkwood saw the original production, he mentioned that he was feeling so happy in the intermission because he didn’t know how it was going to end. “I didn’t either,” Lerner added, and “that was the trouble.” There are some cyclic pleasures to be had at the St. James now, but they have still not found a suitable way to being down the curtain.