The New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC)
The title alone is infamous, and the history of the show behind it only slightly less so. One would think there should be no possibility that How Now, Dow Jones would appear anywhere these days. Okay, maybe at Encores! or (more likely) Musicals in Mufti. But probably not mainstream venues, and certainly not - of all places! - the New York International Fringe Festival, which is more apt to sire new musicals like Urinetown than new productions of spectacularly silly 1967 Broadway flops. And yet, here it is, at the Minetta Lane Theatre, playing through August 23.
Common sense tells us there should be nothing worthwhile about this show, from Max Shulman’s frequently derided book to Elmer Bernstein and Carolyn Leigh’s never-heard score. Plus, this is a highly reduced revisal: Director Ben West gutted the original, cutting songs, scenes, and characters, and reinstituting others that were lost on the road or left languishing in trunks. His attempts to make a sleek, modern, performable version for only eight actors and a 75-minute running mean you’re not even seeing the real thing! But against the odds, there’s much that’s good here, even if the final result is a predictable one.
Sad a statement as it may be about our current musical theatre, Bernstein’s music and Leigh’s lyrics make for a modest winner of a score. It’s at best a second-tier offering compared to the likes of Jerry Herman’s Mame or Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s Sweet Charity, but it adheres to the premises of honest, toe-tapping tunefulness that most composers from the 1970s onward have eschewed in favor of better-integrated song stacks. If the numbers here have little more than casual relationships with character, they delight in the moment and linger long after they’ve concluded in ways that no songs from this past season’s new Broadway musicals could manage (few even bothered to try).
Then there’s the cast, filled with folks whose talents include connecting to us with their (gasp) personalities. The gawky-hunky charmer Colin Hanlon, the waifish spunkpot Cristen Paige, and the boldly brassy Cori Silberman lead the group with aplomb, but supporting performers Elon Rutberg, Fred Berman, Jim Middleton, Shane Bland, and Dennis O’Bannion are just as determined to look and sound like no one else. This commitment to individuality is practically unheard of today (many of the biggest musicals thrive on actors being easily replaceable cogs), and may be fostered by the complete lack of electronic amplification that forces the actors to project all of themselves into our laps and hearts. Hearing them, by the way, is no problem whatsoever. (Yes, yes, it’s only over single-piano accompaniment by musical director Fran Minarik, but still.)
But ultimately, this is all for naught. The libretto’s premise is, any way you slice it, unworkable. It’s the job of Kate (Paige) to publicly pronounce the market’s various ups and downs. Her fiancé, Herbert (Rutberg), has promised to marry her the instant the Dow Jones Industrial Average hits 1,000. (Uh, going up, that is - remember, this was 1967.) So when she becomes pregnant following a brief fling with Charley (Colin Hanlon), a suicide-inclined failure (who nonetheless eventually finds success selling to widows and orphans), she tries to secure the baby’s future by announcing that the DJIA has reached that magic threshold - at which point, of course, national panic ensues. Or something.
Neither the run-up, the resolution, nor the side story - in which Kate’s friend Cynthia (Silberman) becomes the apartment-holding mistress of a Wall Street powerbroker (Berman), who for some reason declines to procure her services - makes any sense, which doesn’t lead to any kind of a satisfying evening. West’s changes haven’t even begun to resolve that problem, and he’s made so many excises and swaps that you don’t get to know anyone deeply enough for that to even be a possibility. (Even slight musical comedies benefit from rich characterizations.) Some of the score changes, such as punting the contrapuntal section of the terminally catchy “Step to the Rear” (moved here from the first act to the finale spot), also contribute to an overall scrawny feeling that the latent fun isn’t quite robust enough to overcome.
The staging is fast, fresh, and fine - choreographer Rommy Sandhu has even given Bland and O’Bannion an energetic, full-length, after-the-vocal dance at one point, a feature long considered extinct in contemporary musicals. But, no matter how inventive it may be, eight actors are not capable of conveying the hustling excitement of Wall Street, let alone the pandemonium that hits when Kate’s play self-destructs, and these qualities are must-haves here. Directors of today can pretend all they like that full-size musicals can be thinned out to anorexic proportions and still thrill, but it’s simply not the case. If How Now, Dow Jones is a less immediately bewildering prospect in this realm than John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd or Joe DiPietro’s Allegro, it still has needs that can’t be filled when there aren’t even a dozen people onstage. The show isn’t better off for these kinds of changes.
Audiences, however, are at least a little better off for West bringing this version to town. Hearing songs like the male-lamenting “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like That,” the professional-makeover job “Gawk, Tousle and Shucks,” and the lightly romantic “Live a Little” and “Touch and Go” for Kate and Charley, performed by this company without soul-deadening microphones is an unusually melodic joy given the proclivities of most Fringe Festival musicals. One suspects that, if West has his way, this won’t be the last we see or hear of this How Now, Dow Jones. But based strictly on what’s presented here, it seems unlikely that any amount of tinkering will ever make this very good time into a very good show.
How Now, Dow Jones