Choral Ambiguities


Nothing in the theater is more desolating than the show you feel you ought to enjoy and don’t. Coram Boy and Legally Blonde, two large-scale pieces with music, playing in very large Broadway houses, have in common their regrettable ability to arouse that bleak feeling. Not to the same degree: Coram Boy is an unhappy, spasmodic mess that should have been a wonderful experience, while Legally Blonde is a perky, proficient, savvy show that, even while constantly losing its central focus, produces a lot of peripheral fun.

Both shows struggle with the musical theater’s eternal problem: how to make the story come to life through the score. Coram Boy uses a lot of very great music by a fellow named Handel, familiar in other realms but a comparative unknown on Broadway; Legally Blonde has songs by the barely known novice team of Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin. Both pieces are adapted from sources with a teenage target audience: Coram Boy from a prizewinning “young adult” novel by Jamila Gavin; Legally Blonde from the Reese Witherspoon movie and its sequels. (Yes, lots of adults have enjoyed the movies too, but most American adults are basically teenagers in grown-up bodies.)

Coram Boy, set in the 18th century, is a melodrama, drawing heavily on Dickens and his contemporaries for plot materials: an aristocratic foundling, a disinherited rebel son, a maltreated half-wit who has visions of angels, a hypocritical villain who spouts caritas as a cover-up for child abuse, and even a secret passage to the waterfront for its climactic shipboard brawl and last-minute rescue from drowning. All this, and 75 minutes of tidbits from Messiah too. I was only sorry there were no scenes laid in France, where the choir might have given us my favorite Handel aria, “Their land brought forth frogs.”

Melodrama is an old and honorable art form, and to call a piece melodrama is not in itself a criticism. But like any art, it has gradations of quality. Filching plot devices from Dickens doesn’t automatically make a work “Dickensian,” and using big melodramatic upheavals doesn’t automatically make it thrilling. The form depends to a surprising degree on being grounded in reality (Bernard Shaw called it, wonderfully, “a realistic picture of our dreams”). For a melodrama to fly to heights of unreal glory, you have to build into it some credible springboard. I don’t know if Gavin’s novel does this. Helen Edmundson’s stage version emphatically doesn’t, spending a lot of time in hysterics and very little in clarification. Such coherence as Edmundson retains is blurred into noisy incoherence by Melly Still’s excruciatingly inept directing, which, with the aid of troops of superfluous figures and a constantly revolving stage, can take focus away from the key figures at any important moment. Fun as it is to see something with large-scale sweep onstage, it’s impossible to get caught up in a melodrama if you never learn why or how anything in it happens.

The story’s tied, loosely, to notions about music, specifically to charity performances of Messiah, late in Handel’s life, for the benefit of the foundling hospital at which the “Coram boys” who sang in these concerts were raised. But the lack of clarity and dramatic focus vitiates the score’s effectiveness, while the power of this extraordinary music, in an environment where we so rarely hear it, too often becomes yet another distraction from the story: Handel’s oratorios rank as masterworks because, among many other reasons, they’re so dramatic in themselves; they don’t need the annoying added burden of a tricked-up tale about a choir-school boy whose lordly father doesn’t want him to become a composer. Coram Boy‘s creators, like sheep, have gone astray, making neither a great melodrama nor a great musical event. Among the enormous cast, Jan Maxwell, an innately sympathetic actress once again miscast as a villainess, gives the closest to a solid performance. Bill Camp, Christina Rouner, Xanthe Elbrick, Dashiell Eaves, and Ivy Vahanian are among the few who snatch a moment or two of triumph over the frenetic muddle. The music, under Constantine Kitsopoulos’s baton, is well Handeled, but the set, by Ti Green and the director, summarizes the evening more accurately: It looks like the framework for a beautiful tent that nobody knew how to put up.

The team that put up Legally Blonde, in contrast, knows both too much and not enough. The show charges on, in choreographer-director Jerry Mitchell’s production,
with ceaseless pace and almost fanatic fussing over detail. The sweetly moral fable of the airhead girl who learns to be a person by following the snob who dumped her to law school and outdoing him at his own game gets told clearly, even insistently, to a constant, brain-jarring bubblegum rock beat. The insistence is so intense and the speed so unrelenting that you barely notice the often monumental gaps that Heather Hach’s script leaves in the narrative. What’s all too noticeable, though, is how the breathless tone keeps the events, and the performers, from registering. And an audience’s heart is a lot like Harvard Law School: It’s hard to get in if you don’t register. Laura Bell Bundy’s performance as the heroine, Elle Woods, has been unjustly slated for lacking charisma; what she actually lacks is a peaceful moment onstage with a good song in which to get charismatic, something she’s done capably in less overblown contexts. Here she’s kept so busy changing costumes, rattling off lines, and going through ceaseless routines with everybody else that she becomes no more than a petite blonde cog in this vast, plot-serving machine—no position from which to exercise charisma.

And “exercise,” you might say, is the show’s key word. It deals partly with an aerobics-video queen’s trial for murder, and the constant choreography often looks like one of her workout tapes: Mitchell’s most surprising failure, for a Broadway dance-maker of his stature, is that he never, except in one subplot-related spoof moment, lets dance take over and supply those emotional peaks which the writers merely treat as footnotes in passing. Instead, his goal seems to have been to turn the show into the live equivalent of a music video, as if its teen-gal following wouldn’t notice the change from two dimensions to three. David Rockwell’s set pieces dance busily along, and Laurence O’Keefe’s music, a severe letdown, caters unimaginatively to the nonstop chug-chug. Against it, hearteningly, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics, well-heard, up to date, and funny, often create brightly surprising textures; Luckier than Bundy, Orfeh, as Elle’s beautician chum, gets to take over the stage with a song. The main men in Elle’s life having been colorlessly cast, the supporting players keep catching your attention: Michael Rupert as the crusty professor that Elle has to conquer, Kate Shindle as her resentful rival, Andy Karl as the beautician’s UPS hunk, Natalie Joy Johnson as a lawyer with a penchant for same-sex relations. Each of them grab some of those precious moments where the show’s creators ease up on the pressure tactics and remember that they’re making a new musical, not selling a used car. These days on Broadway, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference.

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