True confession: I like musicals

I don't love them. I don't hate them. Is that so wrong?

Downtown on a recent Saturday, I passed the Moore Theater and was surprised—nay, shocked—to see a group of teenagers camped out, complete with lawn chairs and sleeping bags, waiting for cheap tickets to the matinee of Rent. I seriously considered warning them. "Save your money, young innocents!" I mentally rehearsed. "Better to blow your allowances on Jackie Chan rentals and pizza than pour it into this sham of a spectacle, filled with fake drama, songs that sound like a jam session between Night Ranger, Billy Ocean, and Chicago, and choreography straight out of the Solid Gold Dancers!"

Rent

Moore Theater, ends November 8

Cats

Paramount Theater, September 15-20

Godspell

Taproot Theater, ends October 17

Loose Canons

Theater Babylon, ends October 3

But as I started to speak, one of the waifs began to warble out a song from the show, and I realized the cause was lost. Because when someone loves a musical, or loves all musicals, nothing you can say or do as a critic will make any difference whatsoever.

Conversely, I have friends who hate musicals. They react to the spectacle of someone breaking into orchestrated song the way a fervent Marxist does to a Catholic mass. "Look at that!" yells a friend of mine during a TV showing of Hello Dolly! "Suddenly an entire parade starts singing the same damn song she was just singing, as though she transmitted it into their skulls! It's not only unrealistic, it's creepy!"

As for myself, I like musicals. I don't listen to them endlessly on my CD player. Nor do I know much about composers and lyricists. (I am deeply suspicious of their attempts to clutch me into a romantic up-swelling of passion when I don't especially feel like one.) But I can appreciate the absurdity of passionate moments being expressed in a dance number, am envious of people who can sing, dance, and even sort of act, and I admire the obsessive desire of musical leads to wear a different costume in every number.

In an effort to define what it is that keeps me from either slavish adoration or virulent hatred toward musicals (the two camps most of my friends seem to fall into), I sat down and thought about a number of musicals I've seen recently.

I've already given you a hint of what I thought of Rent. After that traumatic experience, I went to see Cats for the first time with something approaching mortal fear. I shouldn't have worried. This Andrew Lloyd-Webber/T.S. Eliot concoction, which recently became the longest-running musical on Broadway, is completely harmless.

It's a bunch of dancing, singing cats hanging out in a junkyard. That's essentially it. The '80s-style costumes and posturing are actually kind of quaint, and the music, aside from the one hit "Memory," is tunefully forgettable though endlessly repetitious. The show could lose three or four songs and four or five dance numbers and not even its devout fans would notice. But Martin Levan's clever junkyard set and wonderful costumes are ideally suited to Gillian Lynne's choreography, and it's a good show for kids, provided they can sit through anything that's almost three hours long.

Another musical that's been around a very long time is Godspell, the Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak musical first produced back in 1971. Taproot Theater's current production drops the classic "clown revue" style of the original show in favor of setting the action on an urban rooftop with a multi-ethnic cast. There are benefits to staging this musical retelling of the Gospel According to Matthew in this manner. It avoids the white-faced preciousness of old and boasts some inventive staging as the cast improvises canes out of broom handles, a drum from a bucket, and a holy offering from a hibachi sausage. Director Scott Nolte and musical directors Candace and Samuel Vance have also moved away from the folk-rock score into salsa, calypso, gospel, and even a country hoe-down, and Suzanne Ostersmith's choreography does wonders with a large cast on a small stage.

At the same time, Nolte's decision to set the play in a particular place and time does create problems. Godspell is essentially a vaudeville revue, with each parable a comedy skit and the story of Jesus as the link. Set in a recognizable setting with actual characters, this version leads us to expect more of a linear story than what it delivers.

What's more, the production shows an almost obsessive love of pop culture, with references to Star Trek, Titanic, Friends, and The Brady Bunch. While it's entirely appropriate to include such material in a modern urban setting, at times the skits completely overwhelm the original parables. How a Star Trek parody relates to the teaching of the seed that falls on fallow ground is a bit murky. And, not surprisingly, when the story of the Prodigal Son is told as a Brady Bunch episode, everything gets reduced to typical sitcom. It's a crowd-pleaser, but I can't help thinking that the company's enthusiasm for entertaining people has led it into some questionable territory.

Speaking of questionable territory: The musical I've enjoyed most recently has also been the most unlikely, a little show called Loose Canons, written by Ellen Cooper with music by Phrin Prickett and staged by Theater Babylon. This cartoonish trip through the labyrinthine deceptions of the Iran-Contra affair features an all-singin,' all-dancin' cast led by Ollie North (Sam Whiting). Musical theater pros Chris Comte, Maryann Boyd, and Jeff Spaulding, among others, play everyone from Ronnie and Nancy to CIA chief William Casey. Entertaining, informative, and a surprisingly polished project from this usually rough-and-ready group, the show actually manages to make most of the convoluted threads of the conspiracy clear—while providing gems like a shredding tango between Fawn and Ollie, and a rousing finale of North's run for Congress. With its smart, silly performances and a book that's sort of a cross between a cabaret revue and a Doonesbury collection, Loose Canons is a show that's, you guessed it, downright likable.

 
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