Momentary Musicals

Musical theater's always been the most elastic of stage forms. Mozart had no qualms about bolstering Don Giovanni, staged at an opera house under imperial patronage, with the crass slapstick scene in which Zerlina ties up Leporello and threatens him with a razor; around the same time, with equal alacrity, he enriched the score of his resident-theater book musical, The Magic Flute, with some of the loftiest (and most vocally challenging) arias in the repertoire. Opera itself didn't strive to become a fully "integrated" form till half a century later, when Verdi struggled for dramatic coherence and Wagner evolved his theory of the unified art work. Almost as soon as it did, modernism arrived to begin dismantling it again. The American musical, always an omnivorous form, ultimately cracked open in its effort to ingest everything from grand opera to acid rock; trying everything has become the musical's bad habit. Artists have been emboldened by the form's freedom to throw whatever comes to hand into it, however inapposite. Now if they could only find a reason for what they choose to throw in.

Noël Coward, whose centennial we're celebrating this winter, at least had simple, sensible reasons for what he chose in writing Sail Away 38 years ago. He wanted to amuse, for which he famously had a talent; he wanted to apply his English-operetta sensibility to an American musical; and he wanted to write a great role for Elaine Stritch. The second of those goals produced mixed results, but a guy on the cusp of 60 might be forgiven for running dry now and again. The amusement in Sail Away, though strictly circumscribed by ancient stereotypes of deckchair comedy, has been turned out by a master craftsman. The operetta sentiment, though melodically thin and often flaccid lyrically, never gets in the way for long.

One reason it doesn't is that on the show's pre-Broadway tour in 1961, when the main romance plot proved a drag, Coward boldly cut it out and dumped its remnants, along with the comedy, onto Stritch's brazen shoulders. Even in the current concert revival, she displays the energy, freshness of feeling, and pizzazz to carry it all, but watching her try to walk in two stylistic directions at once must have been very strange back then. It seems even odder today, with the 70-plus Stritch, on the love-story side, struggling to resist the charms of gray-haired Jerry Lanning, as a hotly romantic younger man with a domineeering mama. This conflict, like all its attendant subplots, gets solved in a manner that seems too facile even for an old-style musical. To compensate, Coward filled the interstices with a half-dozen gems of rattling comic patter and a pair of better-than-average ballads. In the post-Cats era, this meager garnering feels like a cornucopia.

Details

Sail Away
By NoŽl Coward
Weill Recital Hall
57th Street and Seventh Avenue, 247-7800

Magic Frequencies
By Meredith Monk
Joyce Theatre (closed)

James Joyce's The Dead
By Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, 279-4200

Saturday Night Fever
By Nan Knighton and others
Minskoff Theatre
200 West 45th Street, 307-4100

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Gerald Gutierrez's mostly sit-down staging, cornucopishly, fills the tiny stage of Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall to overflowing, even with the original orchestral forces reduced (presumably why orchestrator Irwin Kostal goes uncredited in the program). Marian Seldes as a grandiose novelist, and Jane and Gordon Connell as a Strindbergian pair of golden-agers, make the best of the better non-Stritch comic bits. Lanning sings with grace; Jonathan Freeman, as the ship's steward, with drollery. Ben Whiteley, conducting, sometimes forgets that the singers are unmiked, but otherwise does well. As for Stritch, vocally her lower register has vanished, her top is thin and wavery, but her middle range, like her verve, seems boundless, while the emotion behind the notes always rings true. "Something Very Strange" had the spontaneity of a 17-year-old, and I couldn't tell who was more genuinely happy: Stritch, her character, or the audience.

I got a similar infusion of delight at Meredith Monk's Magic Frequencies from its first section-the only one that really fits her description of the work as "a science-fiction chamber opera." A couple (Monk and the male soprano Ching Gonzales) are having a meal-setting the table, bringing out the food, she being chatty, he responding in affectionate monosyllables, all in Monk-stylesolfège. As they sit, chat, and eat, three green-clad alien creatures emerge from behind the walls to hover over them, picking up their vibes and finally taking the surplus food-corn on the cob-from the serving bowl and munching it like humans. The scene's silly, engaging, andbeautiful in a way that's pure top-quality Monk.

What follows, regrettably, is of lesser quality, linked to this delightful start only by tenuous theoretical connections. "Magic" frequencies means those too high for the human ear; each scene is presumably meant to play on one of them, in a way that's somehow cumulative. It doesn't work because Monk, scrupulously as she's shaped each section, hasn't found a visual equivalent for the inaudible linkages. Instead we get a set of unconnected and often unfinished actions, none as engrossing as the first. It's ungrateful to complain: Monk's given us so much beauty over the years. Her smaller events can't all have the breathtaking cogency of Facing North; the epic sweep of Quarry and Atlas isn't something one can achieve casually, time and again. I didn't dislike any of Magic Frequencies. But I saw Atlas four times, and thought about going again. Monk's masterpieces are fearsome things for their creator to try to top.

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