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Encores!: Pipe Dream

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Encores!: Pipe Dream
Will Chase and Laura Osnes
Photo by Ari Mintz

In "All Kinds of People," the first song in Pipe Dream, Doc, a marine biologist, succinctly lays out the unintentionally guiding philosophy of this 1955 Richard Rodgers–Oscar Hammerstein musical. "The starfish may look unimportant / Lying limply on his underwater shelf / He may look unimportant to you / But he's very interesting to himself." Then, a few seconds later: "I don't think so much of the buzzard / He is something I would never like to be / But who knows what goes on in his mind? / He may think he is superior to me!" It takes all types, even those — especially those — who at first glance aren't what they seem. And while watching the Encores! concert revival of the show, which is playing at City Center through Sunday night, you'll be constantly reminded of this kind of duality.

Every character has two faces, and it's difficult to know which (if either) is the real one. Doc is part serious scientist, part reluctant romantic. His eventual lover, Suzy, is willing to mire herself in the mud of her surroundings but never remove her head from the clouds. Fauna, the proprietress of the Bear Flag Café and the, ahem, mistress of its all-female employees may be either a cagey businesswoman or an expert practitioner of the oldest profession. Heck, even the next best thing to the village idiot could be the smartest guy around — and, it's worth pointing out, he's named Hazel. Say what you will about whether all this uncertainty is good or bad, at least it keeps you on your toes.

That's enough to keep this production, which has been nicely directed by Marc Bruni and features musical director Rob Berman energetically leading the Encores! Orchestra, afloat, if not to propel it to the exalted stratum of forgotten classics. Based on John Steinbeck's novels Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, the musical bears the marks of a difficult birth that no one involved in this highly professional rendering has been able to completely erase. There are plenty of stories surrounding its genesis — it was originally intended for Frank Loesser, opera star Helen Traubel imbalanced the piece by Met-soprano-ing her way through Fauna, Hammerstein just couldn't bring himself to write proper lines and lyrics about prostitutes, and so on — but in this truncated performance (the efficient "concert adaptation" of Hammerstein's libretto is by David Ives) they don't matter much.

All that does matter is the sense of lighthearted, well-intentioned whimsy that emanates from the stage like a piercing beam from a lighthouse. There's the frothy feel of camaraderie and shared values, for one. But beyond that there's the score, an attractive (if underseasoned) blend of composer Rodgers's earlier operettic endeavors (Oklahoma!, Carousel) with the more contemporary strains that otherwise defined his mid-1950s output (Me and Juliet, Flower Drum Song). There's an air of a chantey about everything, highly appropriate for Steinbeck's salty Monterey, California, setting, along with frequent darker dashes signifying regret of lives not lived and loves not pursued. But joy is always near the front of the minds of these happily unemployed characters, so when they break into good cheer it's a shorter journey than you might expect. This world may be serious; its inhabitants, thankfully, are not.

Encores!: Pipe Dream
Leslie Uggams
Photo by Ari Mintz

Nor is Pipe Dream particularly serious. Stripping away some of the bleaker undertones of Steinbeck, it focuses most heavily on the relationship of Doc (Will Chase) to those around him, men like Hazel (Stephen Wallem) and Mac (Tom Wopat) who want to help Doc write an elusive paper by throwing a raffle to earn the money to buy him a microscope. Interfering with these best-laid plans is Suzy (a radiant Laura Osnes), a poor woman who comes to Doc to fix the hand she injured stealing donuts and who winds up in the care of Fauna (Leslie Uggams). Fauna, wanting to do good herself, later sets up the two — and puts them on the path to happiness that, naturally, first must detour through his rocky unwillingness and her too-independent streak.

Chase and Osnes make an engaging onstage couple, and bestow lush vocals on the songs they sing both alone and together. (Their duets that crown both acts, "All at Once You Love Her" and "The Next Time it Happens," are among the evening's highlights.) And though Uggams to some degree is still fighting against her role's overly legit pedigree (the keys have been brought down out of the stratosphere, though plenty of out-of-place classic lilts remain in Robert Russell Bennett's otherwise lusty orchestrations), she brings a definite star presence, that million-watt smile, and a hint of smoky mystery to songs like the optimistic "Sweet Thursday" and especially the Act II opener, the coyly suggestive "The Happiest House on the Block." In considerably smaller roles, Wopat, Wallem, Philip Hernández as a Hispanic singer, and the rest of the ensemble sing and dance (the tavern-tripping choreography is the work of Kelli Barclay) with aplomb; John Lee Beatty and Toni-Leslie James have helped create a consistent community with their sets and costumes, respectively.

But there's no shaking the sense that, even in this form, Pipe Dream remains two shows that don't always jell as they should. Luckily, the break is a clearly defined one here: intermission. Bruni, Barclay, and their cast have far more fun, and cover much more theatrical ground, in Act II, a much-needed corrective to the more stodgily earlier scenes that seem obsessed with convincing you that you're watching a different show than you are. When the illusions fall and musical comedy takes over, the show works well within its limited ambitions, and entertains as much as any musical in New York does at present. That may not be much of an achievement for a show that must be compared against its creators' other megahits. But it's worth celebrating as both a highly appropriate Encores! entry and as a reminder that — even when they don't entirely work — it takes all kinds of shows to make up a career, and even the lesser ones can contain something to cherish.


Encores!: Pipe Dream
Through April 1
New York City Center's Mainstage, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: New York City Center