Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Middle of Nowhere at Prince Music Theater
The people who put together The Middle of Nowhere must have thought they had a great idea for a musical. For over thirty years, Randy Newman has been acclaimed as one of America's greatest songwriters. Why not take some of his best songs and put them in a musical?
The Prince Music Theater's production of The Middle of Nowhere spends ninety minutes proving, over and over, why this is a bad idea.
To begin with, while many of Newman's songs tell intriguing stories, they are self-contained stories. Characters don't reappear from song to song; Newman describes someone's life, then moves on to the next story. Thus, any attempt to shoehorn these songs into a narrative form is almost guaranteed to be clunky and awkward. The Middle of Nowhere takes the easy way out, though; it gives us almost no narrative. It puts Newman's songs into the mouths of five different characters, but their characters are so sketchy that the show gives us no reason to be interested in them or the tales they tell. In fact, four of the five characters don't even have names, just labels: "Girl," "Salesman," "G.I.," and "Redneck." By the end of the show, we don't know anything more about them than when we first meet them.
The show opens in a Louisiana bus depot in 1969, where Joe, the custodian - and the only character in the show with a name - is reading a newspaper. Outside, a storm is raging: thunder strikes every few seconds, and a downpour can be seen through the window. Joe sings a few snatches of "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" - but since it already is raining, the song doesn't seem too appropriate.
Soon, four weary travelers come in from the rain, complaining how bad the weather is. Strange that their clothes aren't wet. Anyway, Joe lackadaisically lets his patrons know that the bus might come tonight, or it might come tomorrow - the bridge to Shreveport is out, the phone service is erratic, and they might as well make themselves at home, since it looks like it'll be a long night. The audience should take this as a warning.
These five people don't have much to say to each other; when the Salesman yells at the Girl, she just shrugs and moves away from him. Moments like this repeat over and over in an opening sequence that runs about ten minutes (but feels longer) before the first full song begins.
The Salesman sees Joe playing with a pair of musical bones and and asks what they are. "Haven't you ever seen a minstrel show?" Joe asks. "Before my time," says the Salesman. Soon these five people find themselves magically performing in a minstrel show of their own. (Don't ask how.) Book writer Tracy Friedman uses the minstrel show as a way of poking fun at racial attitudes the way Newman does, but the concept doesn't work. For one thing, Friedman's witless discussion of race can't hope to match the wit, intelligence and subtlety that Newman's lyrics bring to the same subject. Besides, if a fortyish salesman in 1969 is too young to remember minstrel shows, how can an audience in 2005 hope to relate to them?
So the five cast members take turns singing some of Newman's funniest satiric lyrics, never failing to drain out all of the humor with broad, exaggerated performances. Then they sing some of Newman's sharp sketches of life's losers like "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong" and "It's Money That I Love." But while they perform, they fail to arouse any sympathy or interest - even from each other. When a white character sings a racist line, the black characters don't even react; if they don't care, why should we?
Jeffrey V. Thompson (as Joe) makes the strongest impression in the cast. He has the richest voice, and his amiable style helps sell the gospel-style "Sail Away," the shuffle "Lonely At The Top," and the gorgeous "Louisiana 1927." As the Girl, Autumn Hurlbert displays an impressive rock belting style; unfortunately, her demeanor is so petulant that it's impossible to warm up to her. The other three cast members don't have personalities or voices strong enough to sustain interest for long.
John Ruocco directed the show, barely. He's also responsible for the repetitive choreography - three of the four men do soft-shoe numbers, and Hurlbert keeps straddling a chair and doing a high kick like she's in a production of Chicago. She should be so lucky.
Randy Newman really is a superb songwriter, but you might not realize it after seeing The Middle of Nowhere. There was no reason to musicalize this material, and there is no reason to see this show. One would be better off simply buying one of Newman's albums - or, better yet, going to one of his concerts. I've been to several, and they are wonderful, rollicking affairs that give you a lot to laugh about and a lot to think about. But there is not one single laugh, and not one new insight, in The Middle of Nowhere, a show that leaves its audience feeling as stranded as its characters.
The Middle of Nowhere runs through Sunday, June 26. Ticket prices range from $30 to $52 and may be purchased by calling the Prince Music Theater box office at 215-569-9700, in person at 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, or online at www.princemusictheater.org.
Songs by Randy Newman