The Cast of Harps and Angels Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010
I suppose that composer Randy Newman is as good a candidate as anyone to receive the jukebox musical treatment. Certainly his work has undergone the treatment before. There have been at least two prior attempts at theatrical pieces using his preexisting work not to mention Randy Newman’s Faust,
which featured original material. But apparently Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group thought it was time for another go at this, so they greenlighted Harps and Angels
, Jack Viertel’s new Newman revue, which arrived recently at the Mark Taper Forum under the direction of Jerry Zaks. To clarify, this is less of a jukebox musical than a straight-forward revue. A collection of Newman’s songs are performed over two hours with no real plot line linking them and only intermittent allusions to vignettes the songs might describe. There’s no dialog, although Newman himself makes a few cameo appearances in video that is projected onto a number of screens that fly on and off of the stage. It’s not unlike a less ambitious version of the most recent Sondheim revue to grace the New York stage, Sondheim on Sondheim
, except without the Sondheim.
Newman’s songs are filled with biting and sometimes caustic irony. They are not musically groundbreaking, but at their core is humor with a pessimistic streak that is part of their charm. And while the largely capable cast of Harps and Angels
gives the songs splendid vocal attention, there seems to be a hesitation to embrace some of the edgier aspects of the work. The laughs come a bit too easily all throughout the show, but nothing here is going to make anyone wince, although it should sometimes. I was rather taken with the women in the cast, including Katey Sagal, Adriane Lenox, and Storm Large, all of whom have substantial vocal and song performance skills. I particularly enjoyed “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and “God’s Song.” But whether or not these individual performances gel seem entirely random and are as likely to go bust as not. The men in the cast, Michael McKean, Ryder Bach, and Matthew Saldivar seem to function more as comic foils than vocalists, although they do speak and/or sing about half of the show’s numbers. The comic numbers, like "Big Hat, No Cattle," seem genteel and funny, while Newman's ironic heart of darkness, like "Sail Away," seem out-of-place and off tone. (Both of these numbers are performed by McKean in the show.
Of course, "I Love L.A." gets lots of attention here at the end of both Act I and Act II, and the crowd is encouraged to clap along on both occasions. The song, with its discreet ambivalence about the city that has whole-heartedly adopted it as an unofficial anthem without a thought to its darker side, may in fact be the perfect theme song for Los Angeles. And it may be the perfect closing number for a show with an uncertain relationship and understanding of the irony that makes up its component parts. Harps and Angels
runs at the Mark Taper Forum through the 22nd of December.
Labels: LA Theater Reviews