Tonight I saw a revival of The Man Who Would Be King . . . wait a minute, I'm getting confused, it wasn't a revival, but a brand new show! Why then did it feel like I was watching some horribly dated "lost" musical from the 50s? Why does The Man Who Would Be King feel so much like the 1953 musical Kismet and, oh my god, is that Alfred Drake up there on the stage?
Such were the questions racing through my mind as I watched this new show whose story is based on the classic tale by Rudyard Kipling. It's easy to see why composer Neil Berg and lyricist/book writer DJ Salisbury were drawn to Kipling's text. Full of adventure, male camaraderie, love affairs, and even an astute message about the perils of colonialism, "The Man Who Would Be King," at least on paper, has all the makings of an engaging musical.
Kipling's story focuses on two main characters: Daniel Dravot (Tony Lawson) and Peachy Carnahan (Paul Anthony Stewart) (both filling in admirably and impressively for the previously announced stars Marc Kudisch and Brian d' arcy James). Daniel and Peachy are consummate charlatans in search of riches and decide to travel to the remote region of Kafiristan (part of Afghanistan) to convince the "natives" that they are kings, if not gods. Peachy and Daniel bring "progress" to Kafiristan, teaching the isolated culture how to build bridges and fire rifles, but call down the community's wrath on themselves when it is revealed that they are not gods they claim to be. Though the nineteenth-century text is based on some of Kipling's own real-life travels throughout India and the subcontinent, as refashioned by Berg and Salisbury, the Kafiristan "natives" have all the Indian/Afghani authenticity of employees at the Trump Taj Mahal.
For all of the show's adventuresome plot, the musical The Man Who Would Be King still feels oddly inert and dated. For starters, the show's British milieu and use of English accents, particularly Stewart's cockney take on Peachy, kept evoking images of Oliver!. Meanwhile Lawson's looks, rich baritone voice, and broad acting, strongly reminded me of Howard Keel in the movie version of Kismet, a musical, that like this show, involves "exotic peoples" (albeit in Arabia), young lovers, and a smooth, fast-talking protagonist. Salisbury seems to makes the comparison with the 1953 Wright and Forrest musical explicit in the number "In the Serai," a song that takes place at an "exotic" marketplace. The cast sings about selling trinkets and other "baubles," a word I can only recall hearing once before in a musical, in the song "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" from, yep, you guessed it, Kismet.
As for Berg and Salisbury's score, it's fairly nondescript and doesn't really recall any particular style, neither "Broadway" brass nor sufficiently "Eastern" enough to evoke the show's "Oriental" setting. Melodically, Berg has come up with some decent tunes, but sadly, paired with Salisbury's bland lyrics, the music is all but forgettable. His lyrics do little to reveal insight into what remain one-dimensional figures. Perhaps Salisbury was trying to emulate the poetic beauty of Kipling, but the upshot is that the characters are saddled with vapid, clichéd, and treacly lines such as the "demons of our yesterdays won't stop us anymore" and "yesterdays fade with the dawn." Later, characters sing about "new horizons" and "embracing the skies," expressions that seem more appropriate for the cheesy motivational posters I've seen hanging in corporate business offices than for defining theatrical characters.
If you're going to see the show, it's advisable you read the short story in advance, because the musical's book is often difficult to follow. The story's jumps back and forth between the adventures of Daniel and Peachy and the narration of those events by Peachy to a Journalist (Don Richard), some point after Peachy and Daniel's travels have come to a violent end. Salisbury's dialogue often rushes plot nuances by with considerable speed, a problem intensified by the thick British accents that some of the actors employ, thereby further obscuring the tale's important details. The show's love scenes, in which characters melodramatically proclaim their love for each other, come off as particularly hokey, again adding to the show's 1950s dated feel. Paul Dobie's direction combined with Karen Azenberg's choreography doesn't remedy much either. His work looks unfocused while her choreography, with its awkward group scenes, recalls the messy chorus numbers of Les Miz. Azenberg contributes several balletic sequences to the show including a "knife ballet," that while graceful, don't seem to enhance or further the storytelling in any meaningful way.
Notwithstanding many of the show's problems, there are a few pleasant moments scattered among the wreckage. The young love interest Roxane is charmingly played by Mandy Bruno. Though most of her songs are marred by the same general lyrical flabbiness that defines the rest of the score, she is given a lovely duet, "Let in the Sun," with Peachy that, in one of the show's rare moments, conveys a sense of layered depth and meaning missing in the other scenes. Similarly, the Journalist (Don Richard) does well by the show's title number, although it was never made clear to me why he, such a minor and one-dimensional character, was given this song in which he tells us that he never will be "the man that would be king." The show, despite its limited budget, is also graced with colorful gorgeous costumes by Sam Fleming that are just about the only thing in the production that really evokes the play's Indian/Afghani setting.
It's hard to say if the creators have set themselves up for failure due to their source material. Maybe Kipling, at least as fodder for a musical, is more dated than we think? For me, it seems difficult to swallow the show's fantastic plot contrivances with any modicum of seriousness. Oddly enough, Berg and Salisbury's show, while not succeeding in creating a musical that depicts another time period, have come up with a musical that itself feels like it's from another era.
New York Musical Theatre Festival