The Disadvantages of Living at the End of the T

Gales are diminishing somewhere. Tales are finishing somewhere. Somewhere out there. Not here. Here, we blog shows, arrange the snow mounds, go to lift.

If you don’t get the reference, I apologize. Actually, if you do get the reference, I apologize. Needless to say, we’re headed into yet another storm and I have a short story due. So, naturally, I’m going to blog about my weekend. As you do.

Saturday afternoon: Honeymoon in Vegas

Yes, it’s a musical now. And, oddly, an exceptionally expert pastiche of the sort of ‘60s musical that might have run for a season or two, become a modest hit, then forgotten. When I think of Vegas musicals, good or bad, I think of Golden Rainbow. While Honeymoon in Vegas does hit that very '60s ring-a-ding-ding rat pack vibe, we never get to Golden Rainbow levels of tackiness.

It’s a near thing though. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, there’s a reason why I linked to the song “Twenty Four Hours a Day” from Golden Rainbow. So…

The Good: Jason Robert Brown’s score is mostly wonderful. It’s a loving pastiche of what you think of when you think Vegas (even if Vegas has since rebranded itself as family entertainment). The song “Out of the Sun” is an excellent argument for sheet music lyrics. It’s a terrific noirish tune mated to plot-appropriate comedy lyrics. It deserves a life outside the show with lyrics that match the dark, haunting music (and better singing, but more on that later).

It’s mostly a solidly constructed show. The first act, especially, hits all the beats at all the right times. The first song sets up the premise. The second song is the heroine’s “I want” song. The act one finale comes at exactly the moment where “boy loses girl.” After sitting through something like Bullets Over Broadway, it was just really satisfying to watch something where everyone involved seem to know how to construct a musical. (Yes, I have qualms. More on that later.)

Gary Griffin’s direction is inventive. He makes the running gag with Nancy Opel work about as well as possible. The show is as well paced as possible given the text. David Josefberg is great in his two roles as nightclub singer and the lead Flying Elvis. They combine and become this surreal element that drives the show to its happy conclusion. This works because In the show, the main character is cursed by his mother and that curse is taken absolutely literally, to the point that the main character goes through a ritual to remove it. It’s to some degree a fantasy. If anything, I wish the show had been more fantastic than just this curse and David Josefberg being this crypto-godlike figure.

Rob McClure is terrific as the Man Who Learns To Stand Up To His Mother To Marry His Love. Yes, the part is extremely trope-y. He does a great job with it though.

The Bad: Like many a '60s musical, it sags in the second act. They may have pastiched too faithfully. Yes, the act one finale is perfectly placed but the story is also mostly over at that point. (This may be a problem inherent in the classical American Musical form.) Once the leading man has finally strengthened his resolve, most of the second act is just trying to distract you from the fact that there’s very little story left. When that works, as in The Music Man or Urinetown, you have a good time anyway. When that doesn’t work, you have Honeymoon in Vegas (and a number of other musicals). In this case, you decide, for example, a number about how all flights route through Atlanta just isn’t that funny.

The Ugly: I love me a good '60s musical but do you have to copy its problematic aspects, too? The show engages in the casual othering of characters of color that, admittedly, would not have been interrogated as critically within the area the writers are pastiching. Some of the show’s weakest material involves the exoticization of Hawai'i as this place where the natives (as they are called) speak pidgin English and engage in secret, ancient spiritual rituals.

I actually think this could have worked, or at least worked better. The show could have easily taken place in “Hawaii” and “Vegas.” Clearly, they tried. It takes place in a world where a mother’s dying curse is absolutely real. Only Rob McClure’s character can see the affects of the curse, but its reality is never really challenged. In fact the running gag of Nancy Opel (who plays the dead mother) showing up all over the musical reinforces it. However, it doesn’t go far enough.

The Vegas of the show seems to have stepped out of the '60s. However, the show opens with some explicitly modern references, like Shake Shack and cellphones, but retains plot elements of the original screenplay that reflect when the movie was made. Since they all have cellphones and Jack is late, why doesn’t Betsy just phone Jack rather than simply waiting for him to finish his poker game? In fact, why don’t they ever phone each other? I mean, in the second act, they both want to talk to each other even though they’re separated by thousands of miles. (Betsy’s relative uninvolvement in her own life is also troubling.)

The end result doesn’t look as much a fantasy land where curses are real, Vegas is stuck in the '60s and Hawaii is this explicitly fantastical place as it looks like the show’s creators just couldn’t put together a coherent, consistent setting. Unfortunately for them, they got it wrong in ways that fall squarely into tired tropes used straight.

There are ways to explain around things but not satisfactorily. E.g., maybe Mahi merely conforming to Jack’s stereotyped expectations of a Hawaiian woman because she’s being paid to distract him from reaching Betsy. However, she’s also the guide that leads him to the sacred grove where the curse can be reversed.

In any case, being a fan of the American Musical Comedy means having to know how to like problematic things. Honeymoon in Vegas gave me a lot of practice as there is much worth liking, and some not.

Saturday Night: Lady, Be Good.

Written in 1924, this is George and Ira Gershwin’s first musical together. It starred the hit sister-and-brother song-and-dance team of Adele and Fred Astaire. (Adele was most definitely the star of the pair and you can see this in show.) Much of the original orchestrations were lost. This Encores! concert represents a reconstruction of this classic Gershwin score (expertly done with orchestrations by Bill Elliott to replace the missing originals).

The show has a rather complicated plot. In retrospect, this isn’t that surprising. Obviously, Adele and Fred can’t have a romantic relationship with each other. (In Lady, Be Good they actually play siblings.) So, at the very least, they each have to have their own romantic relationship plot lines. Then you need the second, or comedy, couple (since you can’t really have either Astaire play second banana to the other one). In this case, in order to make the plot work, we eventually end up with two second couples leading to a quadruple(!) wedding at the show’s finale.

I thought what happened was all pretty clear. However, I knew the story going in. Garrison Keillor did a tab version with narration for his American Radio Company of the Air (the show he did when he wasn’t doing Prairie Home Companion). Then, in 1992, Nonesuch released a reconstruction of the score as part of its Roxbury series of Gershwin recordings.

The concert itself was delightful. Lady. Be Good should play as this light, daffy concoction and it does, in no small part due to terrific casting. Just about everyone was great but I want to single out Danny Gardner and Patti Murin. They play the squabbling siblings and give us a sense of what it might have been like to see the Astaires in their respective parts.

(As a side note, Encores! went a very different way to casting the shyster lawyer compared to the Nonesuch recording. Encores! cast Douglas Sills. Nonesuch went for Jason Alexander. They were both great in their very different performances.)

The original production featured one specialty number per act by Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike. (Coincidentally, these may the numbers you actually know from the show, “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Little Jazz Bird.”) This production went for Tommy Tune. Obviously, you don’t hire him then make him play the ukulele. You have him dance, and he was fine. He did ultimately feel like he was part of some other show and I think that’s what they wanted. That didn’t really work for me although “Fascinating Rhythm” as accompanied by the chorus was pretty thrilling.

The show is not without its problematic element. (This is not a surprise for a show so old.) At one point, Susie (the Adele Astaire role) has to pretend to be a Mexican. This leads to a cliched portrayal and a somewhat embarrassing number called “Señorita Juanita.” However, the joke is at her expense and the expense of the person she’s trying to fool. I.e., no one is supposed to think Mexicans are actually like that. In this respect, it’s actually less problematic than Honeymoon in Vegas

Anyway, I had a great time. This was yet another terrific Encores! presentation. I’m a bit sad that I will miss the next one, Paint Your Wagon.

The Rest of the Weekend Thus Far:

The state of the late night bus back keeps changing. Once, it was an express. That was nice in that I could get uninterrupted sleep. That was not nice in that it got me back to the bus station two hours before the T started running. Then they added a stop in Worcester. This broke up the nap and I still got back to the bus station too early to get him.

Now, it’s an actual local, meaning it stops at Hartford as well as Worcester. Since I’ve been waking up several times a night anyway, waking up at Hartford and Worcester wasn’t actually that disrupting. We also got back a bit later. Weirdly, I may have gotten more sleep than i usually do on the bus.

Of course, I got home to about four or five inches of snow on the driveway. I shoveled that out then went lifting. If the storm goes as its supposed to go, I probably can’t tomorrow so I might as well go today. Got back from lifting then spent some time trying to find two words that rhyme with each other that mean “terrible weather” and “story” respectively…


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