As the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio, gets ready to celebrate their 21st anniversary, audiences are reminded of the company's dedication to developing new musicals, which they have done with regularity in recent years, with their current production of the tuner Harold & Maude. This show, which premiered two years ago at the 1200-seat Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey (with much attention from the New York theater crowd), is now billed as "An Intimate Musical." Changes have been made that have likely improved the piece, but it still isn't the crowd pleaser that it could be, despite a worthwhile staging from the Human Race.
Based on the 1971 cult film classic of the same name, the story of Harold & Maude centers on a sullen young man (Harold) who has a morbid fascination with death. He seeks to gain the attention of his self-absorbed mother through a rash of fake suicide attempts. During one of his many visits to the funerals of strangers, he meets soon-to-be 80-year-old Maude, who also regularly attends funerals. But as Harold loathes his life, earthy free-spirit Maude lives with a zest for life, even as her own grows towards an end. The two eventually form an unexpected bond of love.
Like the title characters, the writers of Harold & Maude are of vastly different ages and experience levels. Lyricist/librettist Ton Jones (The Fantasticks, 110 In The Shade) made a name for himself nearly sixty years ago, while his composer partner Joseph Thalken (Was) is a relative newcomer.
The book by Mr. Jones retains most of the best material from the movie, with some significant changes. The characters remain appealing and the situations funny, interesting and unique. Unfortunately, much of the energy, political satire and heart associated with the movie seem diminished in the musical stage version. It isn't until the very end of the show that true heartfelt connections are conveyed between characters, and ultimately to the audience. Also, some necessary background information on the characters is vaguely presented, such as Harold's exact age, his family situation and Maude's past as a Holocaust survivor.
The score is a mixed bag as well. Mr. Thalken supplies some pleasant and playful melodies, but few are considerably memorable. The lyrics by Jones are his usual first-rate quality, but not many songs advance the plot. The best of the bunch are the charming "Song in My Pocket" and the title number, an old-fashioned list song. For those familiar with the Paper Mill production, quite a few new songs have been added since then, such as "Rata-at-tat!" for Harold's military uncle, "Mirror, Mirror" (with some extremely witty lyrics) for Harold's mom Mrs. Chasen, and a hilarious new opening "Dearest Mother." The two songs most cited by New Jersey/New York critics as needing cut, "Flush It Out!" and "Calm", have indeed been excised.
As Harold, Justin Schultz captures the restrained formality of the macabre young man. Susan Lehman, who was Barbra Streisand's understudy in I Can Get It For You Wholesale many years ago on Broadway, skillfully embodies the eccentric and adventuresome Maude. The pair possess the required chemistry to make them a likeable on-stage couple. Patricia Linhart is sufficiently selfish, bossy and uncaring as Mrs. Chasen. Scott Stoney does the best he can in portraying a number of stereotypical characters such as a bumbling priest, an anal-retentive European psychiatrist and Harold's military uncle. Katie Pees likewise tackles her fair share of predictable characters, but is a major scene stealer as wacky actress Sunshine, and gets to perform the laugh out loud song "Montezuma" and a quick ode to The Fantasticks. The entire cast displays fine singing voices throughout.
Director Kevin Moore stages a number of scenes extremely effectively, and conveys the humor of the piece well at all times. He also very smartly uses slides at the beginning of each act to supply some needed backstory and to establish the setting of the show. However, the scene transitions go on too long due to the clumsy moving of set pieces, further adding to the slow pace of the material in general. Conductor Scot Woolley capably leads a well-balance four-piece band playing Mr. Thalken's apt orchestrations.
The set design and costumes by Bruce Goodrich capture the 1970 time period. The set is painted with psychedelic purple and red designs, and the rooms for the two main characters are nicely detailed. However, the set design doesn't sufficiently convey how rich Harold's family is, and, as mentioned before, the six smaller set pieces that are reconfigured for each new scene are too loud and slow to move for transitions. John Rensel's lighting does a wonderful job of defining space and settings, such as a forest, cemetery, and church.
In its musical version, Harold & Maude remains a quirky and unique story. Unfortunately, this stage version lacks the necessary sparks and energy that could make it come to life. The Human Race Theatre Company presents a fine rendering of the piece, but more work needs done to make this show all that it could be.
Harold & Maude continues at the Human Race Theatre Company through March 25, 2007. For performance and ticket information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org.