There's a musical theatre adage that goes: when adapting from another source, pick flawed material that stands to benefit from transformation to a new medium. Paddy Chayefsky, Academy Award wining writer of the Marty screenplay which he adapted from his own 48-minute original tele-play, closely guarded the musical rights to the material in his lifetime. Would that his widow and son were also so inclined.
The world premiere of the musical Marty, adapted by bookwriter Rupert Holmes, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist Lee Adams, set a record for pre-opening single ticket sales at the Huntington Theatre where it runs through November 24th. And the audience response on opening night was an indication of the story's power and the not unexpected fine acting of John C. Reilly in the title role.
Scenic Designer Robert Jones and Costume Designer Jess Goldstein aptly provide a nostalgic 50's look with a distinctively musical theatre feel not matched by the writing. The rest of the team missed an opportunity to emulate the great book musicals of the 1950's and 60's. Something with the charm of She Loves Me, the energy of Saturday Night, and the heart and soul of Most Happy Fella would be welcome here.
Instead, anachronisms abound in both lyrics and dialogue and the strong language seems out of place in a piece which cries out for the ambiance of the musical stage of the period, not the naturalism of the Marty film. And rather than write to traditional musical forms, as he did so well in Bye, Bye Birdie and Annie, Strouse gives us an odd collection of what sounds like vamps, verses and bridges.
There are only two "musical theatre moments" that make you hungry for more. "Niente Da Fare" is a charming comic respite for Marty's mother and aunt (Barbara Andres, Marilyn Pasekoff) as they commiserate about what awaits them when their children no longer need them.
The other moment provides the only real treat from director Mark Brokaw and choreographer Rob Ashford. Marty's buddies fantasize about the dates that never were and each one's "Saturday Night Girl" materizles from nowhere, an epitome of a 1950's ideal (though, thankfully, one doesn't jump from the centerfold of their Playboy.) At this point, it's the single strongest justification for musicalizing the piece at all.
Very telling that neither moment involves the main characters and not surprising from a score that gives us "Wish I Knew a Love Song" as the penultimate moment for what should be a touching love story. Though Reilly's voice is pleasant enough, he strains to stay on pitch and sustain notes, especially when paired with Anne Torsiglieri's strong lyrical voice breathing life into the wallflower Clara. (The demands of the score are probably better met by Reilly's understudy Alexander Gemignani whose talent is highlighted as the band singer in "Why Not You and Me?")
The original story is so tightly written that most of the bloated musical exposition in act one introducing us to the milieu of mid-1950's life in the outer boroughs and the plight of these two lonelyhearts is unnecessary. And anytime a character is forced to soliloquize, boredom sets in. Why offer internal musical meandering when we already know what someone is thinking and feeling?
One of the bigger disappoints is Lee Adams' contribution as lyricist. Re-teamed with Strouse after a nearly two decades hiatus, nothing he offers here comes close to the simple power of: "I was never crazy for flowers / I confess that nothing left me colder / I could watch a daisy for hours / And all I'd feel was sev'ral hours older!" from Bye, Bye Birdie.
What fun it would be to urge this project onwards and upwards, but something Rod Steiger (the original Marty) said also applies to the best musical theatre collaborations. When asked to explain the phenomenon of the historic 1953 live broadcast of Marty, Steiger said, "All the souls were singing at the same time, thanks to the material." At this point, the same cannot be said of the creative team responsible for the 2002 musical Marty.
Marty at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through November 24th. For additional information and tickets call the Huntington Box Office at 617 266-0800 or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org. Tickets also available from Ticketmaster at 617 931-ARTS.