Tuner Salad

Good, Bad, and Recycled, Musicals Are What’s Going On

Porter kidded the left lightly; E.Y. Harburg, Harold Arlen, and the book writers of 1944's Bloomer Girl(City Center "Encores!," closed) fell prey to its pieties. Set in upstate New York in 1861, the show chronicles the fictive and highly contrived adventures of the niece of the pioneer feminist who invented "rational dress" for women, whose father handily represents every reactionary thing the bloomerites are against. The "bloomer girls" disrupt a hoop-skirted fashion show, a Southern wastrel helps his own fugitive slave escape to Canada, and the least probable performance ever of Uncle Tom's Cabin is put on just in time to be halted by news from Fort Sumter. There are some laughs but little life in this rigmarole. Harburg's perky, word-twisting lyrics ("Utopia" rhymes with "Don't be a dope, ya dope, ya") seem to be searching for a different world to describe; much of Arlen's score replaces his usual emotional generosity with a kind of scholarly sincerity. Is "The Eagle and Me" really one of Sondheim's favorite songs? I hate its fake-folky sententiousness—though I can't get the damn banjolike six-note syncopated phrase it's built on out of my head. (The score does have one great song, "Right as the Rain," and one very good one, "Evelina.")

Brad Rouse's "Encores!" staging coped patiently but not magically with the lumpy material: Kathleen Chalfant and Philip Bosco made a crackly pair of political opponents; sweet-voiced Kate Jennings Grant had the freshness but not the sauce of the young Celeste Holm; Michael Park made her a strong-voiced partner. Everett Bradley performed a thankless role with grace and distinction; first-rate artists like Anita Gillette and Herndon Lackey hovered at the periphery, visibly longing for more to do. And they all cooperatively allowed the evening to be stolen by Jubilant Sykes, who endowed the role of the runaway slave with the abashed charm and vocal lushness of a young Parsifal.

Another young fugitive, not nearly so entertaining, is the half-human half-bat hero of Bat Boy (Union Square Theatre), not a baseball musical. A capricious jumble of horror movie, after-school special, soft-rock romance kitsch, and bad intentional camp, Bat Boy makes the allegedly incoherent books of '20s and '30s shows look like models of Ibsenite dramaturgy. It might be funny as a 15-minute skit, but this is a capitalist country, so it has to be marketed as a two-and-a-half-hour "property," by which time the joke has worn awfully thin. It's better, I suppose, than wasting the same number of minutes on pretension and false sentiment; but a theater in which there's no glimpse of truth equally has no chance of inspiring return visits.

Even Bat Boy has human assets, proving that you can't snuff out all sense of life while making theater, however dumbed-down: Sean McCourt's limber-legged dancing and snaky charm as the mad scientist (a vet!) who's the actual cause of the horrors; Kaitlin Hopkins's warm-toned wistfulness as his victimized wife; Deven May's wonky physicality in the title role; the nut-brained choreography that Christopher Gattelli's invented for the title song and several other moments. These glimpses don't make Bat Boy more endurable, but they offer hope of escape for some of the participants. And a specific small piece of praise to Trent Armand Kendall as the preacher; no critic I know carrying his weight could successfully perform a cartwheel onstage eight times a week.

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