Genders Duke It Out Again in Fanny, Happy Now?, and Dog and Wolf

Men always want, or think they want, something other than what they have. Women always want to keep what they have; they just want it to be new and different all the time. "With this the gist and sum of it," as Dorothy Parker once asked plaintively, "What earthly good can come of it?" And the answer is, as Dottie well knew, that the impossible conflict supplies endless material for works of art, which men and women can happily attend together, each gender thinking how admirable the other is, while secretly being gratified at its own arbitrary cussedness.

Lately revived in City Center's Encores! series of staged concerts, Fanny—the 1954 musical romance that director (and co-librettist) Joshua Logan, playwright S.N. Behrman, and songwriter Harold Rome carved out of Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of plays-turned-films—sets the battle of the sexes on the Marseilles waterfront. Marius (James Snyder), son of the café owner, Cesar (George Hearn), loves the sea and his girlfriend, Fanny (Elena Shaddow), equally. When he runs away to sea leaving Fanny pregnant, she marries the wealthy, elderly, widowed sailmaker, Panisse (Fred Applegate), who craves both beautiful Fanny and an heir for his name. But life gets complicated when sailors come home, as they almost invariably do. . . .

Simple and heartfelt, Pagnol's material provides great musical opportunities, which Rome's score seizes on with great romantic sweep. In the big numbers, the high arcs of his melodies tend to leap out and hook themselves in your brain, where his canny use of repetition keeps them echoing long after the performance. Rome deploys other canny tactics, too, like building the multi-part round that marks the stages of Fanny's child growing up in Act Two out of the accompaniment to Panisse's Act One song about the joy of having a son. Though Rome's lyrics sometimes fall into less inspired patterns, the music's astute mix of passion and architectural skill carries them along. Behrman's text adds hardheadedness and a touch of waterfront salt to the mix (the latter heightened, in the Encores! version, by a few sly additions in David Ives's concert condensation).

Brain-hooking melodies: Elena Shaddow and James Snyder in Fanny
Joan Marcus
Brain-hooking melodies: Elena Shaddow and James Snyder in Fanny

Details

Fanny
By S.N. Behrman, Joshua Logan, and Harold Rome
City Center Encores!
(Closed)

Happy Now?
By Lucinda Coxon
Primary Stages at 59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200

Dog and Wolf
By Catherine Filloux
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street, 212-279-4200

Logan must have guided both his co-authors into the story's realm of passions; he was the romantic involved. Behrman was noted for his mordant sub-Chekhovian psychological comedies, while Rome's previous works had mainly been in the satirical revue format. But even that matched their source: Before the trilogy, Pagnol's success had been as a writer of satirical comedies; this story's bittersweet romanticism unlocked his childhood memories.

Fanny today probably needs an opera house to muster its big choral effects and the big voices three of its four leads require. In this, as in other departments, the Encores! concert, staged by Marc Bruni and conducted by Rob Berman, was workable rather than outstanding—but "workable" is high praise by today's standards. Shaddow, graceful and vocally supple, led the pack musically; Hearn, odd casting for a big-voiced heroic lead in the Ezio Pinza vein, drew movingly subtle emotional effects from the gentler passages. Applegate handled Panisse's comedy solidly if conventionally, and Snyder, though he sometimes pushed vocally, displayed substantially more of both voice and actor-presence than he did in his previous Broadway outing, the title role in the unsuccessful Cry-Baby. Today's musical theater audience probably prefers things cruder, harsher, and more coarsely loud, but Fanny handily demonstrated that romance, carefully animated, can still cast its spell, albeit over a more limited realm.

The limited realm in which the two married couples of Lucinda Coxon's Happy Now? (Primary Stages) battle out their differences is the edge-of-upper-middle, double-income-but-with-kids sector, British edition, more than a little tense about maintaining both its position and its p.c. status. Who has time to sustain a happy sexual relationship in those circumstances? Certainly not Kitty (Mary Bacon), who works for a euthanasia-promoting foundation, and her husband, Johnny (Kelly AuCoin), who's given up an exec job to become a beleaguered schoolteacher. Status-minded, housewifely Bea (Kate Arrington), married to her former boss, Johnny's pal Miles (Quentin Maré), an incipient alcoholic, is in an even worse position. The two men, Coxon suggests, care far more for each other, albeit nonsexually, than for their wives. At first rejected by Kitty with horror, casual sex with a man she meets at conferences (CJ Wilson) starts to seem a more practical notion as grinding effort grates on the marriage.

Two side panels frame the misery's downward spiral: a gay subplot featuring Kitty's lawyer friend (Brian Keane) and his unseen boy-toy, and a tale of older-generation woe starring Kitty's eccentric mom (Joan MacIntosh), still obsessed with the (also unseen) spouse who left her decades ago. As in the main story, everything's pushed a little too tidily into the worst-case situation, and some of the cross patches are so familiar you wonder why the characters don't allude to having seen them in previous plays or films, but Coxon has some craft, an eye for social detail, and an ear for sharp, stinging lines. Liz Diamond's astutely gauged production helps her along, abetted by uniformly high-quality performances (Bacon, Maré, and MacIntosh are particularly effective) and by Narelle Sissons's ingenious set, which comically curses everyone's home, office, and hotel room with the same ghastly utilitarian couch.

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