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.

At least Monk knows the challenge she faces. The puzzle of James Joyce'sThe Dead is: Did Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey have any notion of what they were doing in their attempt to turn Joyce's short story into a musical? Whatever they meant, the soggily pointless mishmash that resulted can't possibly be fulfilling their aims. As staged by Nelson in tandem with Jack Hofsiss, it trudges through the story's main events, dropping songs in as decreed by Broadway tipsterism, rather than as needed dramatically. Gabriel Conroy's old-maid aunts would not have approved-nor would they have countenanced Davey's pleasant folk-pop music in their shabby-genteel 1904 Dublin drawing room. But you know early on that Nelson cares nothing about the life Joyce portrayed when someone announces a song "based on words by the poet Michael William Balfe." Balfe wrote music, not words.

Not that such things would bother the writers who put a huge whoop-de-do in praise of Parnell into the same maiden ladies' drawing room, where his case could never have been openly discussed. The lyric isn't about Parnell, of course; like most of the Nelson-Davey lyrics, it rambles on about nothing in particular. For a finale, they've actually attempted to transform Joyce's somber final paragraph, which begins by quoting a weather report, into a summing-up number for their narrator-hero. The sight of Christopher Walken tonelessly chanting, "Snow will be gen-er-al all over Ireland," the expression on his face betraying a desperate wish to be anywhere other than Dublin or New York, will rank high on my list of painful theatrical memories. Walken, an actor as fascinating as he is (often) maddening, is notoriously lax about voice production; it was brave of him to take on the lead in a musical, but I've never seen him more disconnected from a role.

There isn't much to rouse him, since the desultory staging is a thorough waste of the starry cast. In the long first scene, the listening guests are seated upstage and to the side, so the singers have their backs to us at least half the time. Everyone seems ill at ease and off focus; the only person to make a moment strike the heart is Sally Ann Howes as Aunt Julia. Even John Kelly is made to look and sound awkward, burdened with one of the team's worst ideas: Instead of the simple folk song that brings back Gretta's memories, he sings its lyric in Italian, set as Davey's notion of an aria. Like most of the authors' inventions, the device vitiates Joyce's work while hindering rather than helping its transformation into a theater piece. The logical conclusion is that their intent was to ruin something good; they must be English.

The perpetrators of Saturday Night Fever, in contrast, had a simple, honest motive: They wanted to recycle an old property one of them owned and make some more money off it. It's not their fault that they're stupid, tasteless, and unimaginative; people who think only in money terms usually are. So they took a movie that lives on its sense of reality and made a nice vapid fantasy of it; this version of Bay Ridge was shot on dislocation. Ironically, without the reality for contrast, the disco scenes have no punch, not that Arlene Phillips knows any more about disco choreography than she does about directing actors. Suzy Bensinger's costumes evoke the past suitably, and James Carpinello's shirtless body is something to admire in the present, but the rest is pure hypnopodia: You feel these pointless people are dancing in your sleep.

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