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Harps and Angels

Also see Sharon's review of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Harps and Angels
Storm Large and Matthew Saldivar
If you only know Randy Newman from his scattered pop hits and successful movie tunes, Harps and Angels should come as a welcome surprise. It's an introduction to a songwriter of remarkable range: From ballads to rock anthems, twangy country tunes to sorrowful laments, Newman's got the melody to fit the moment. His lyrics range from elegantly descriptive ("a pale dead moon in a sky streaked with gray") to folksy ("God bless the potholes down on memory lane") and seem to always carry a theatricality to them. Newman might not have written these songs for the stage, but they were written for characters to inhabit. Conceiver Jack Viertel has put together a revue which—with hardly any spoken dialogue—simply allows six performers to each take on various Newman characters and let the songs do the talking.

And it works—at least for the first act. The 19 songs of the first act (plus an overture, and a voiceover tune that raises the bar for witty pre-curtain speeches) come in at about an hour, and engage right from the start. Newman's sarcastic wit is on full display with "Political Science" and then the show turns gently autobiographical with "Dixie Flyer"—and it's about then that Newman newbies may start to realize that there's a lot more to this guy than "I Love L.A."

The cast is talented, and fits well with Newman's material. Michael McKean takes on the amiable older guy songs—he's closest to Newman in age and seems to be standing in for him in the more personal moments. Matthew Saldivar has a softness to his voice, which occasionally reminds of Newman's throaty delivery, while he still brings his own take on the material—his "Real Emotional Girl" is a treat. Rounding out the men is Ryder Bach, who seems a bit underused, but makes the most of his time on stage as the nerdy one—his dream of being "The Man" is funny and relatable all at once.

Katey Sagal is apparently the female lead—she gets the last bow—and her strong voice will come as a surprise to those who only know her from her television work. Her delivery, though, is a bit teacherly—the style works perfectly when she's actually giving a history lesson in "Great Nations of Europe," but it feels out of place when she's asked to take on a more character-driven piece. In "Gainesville," she seems to be educating us about her character's past, rather than revealing it. The other two women, though, more than make up for any weakness on Sagal's part. Storm Large and Adriane Lenox bring powerful vocals and moving characterizations. Lenox's rendition of "Louisiana 1927," a song which long predated Hurricane Katrina but has since been associated with it, is haunting, and Large does justice to the lonely ballad, "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

For a show that effectively pulls off a dark sales pitch for slaves ("Sail Away"), it's a shame that it can't quite figure out how to sell something as straightforward as "I Love L.A.," but the first act closer doesn't nail it like it should. It tries, surely. The mood is set with a smoke machine, Saldivar comes out holding a stand mic in full rock star mode (with Large hanging off him), and the audience pretty much involuntarily cheers the opening chords. (We can't help it. It generally means the Dodgers or Lakers won.) But the song just kind of sits there—the audience isn't encouraged to clap along until the very end, and six voices just aren't enough to make the "We love it!" shouts sound convincing. Even worse, during the musical interlude, the performers all turn upstage and watch sped-up films of L.A. traffic. We need dancing, or crowd participation ... or, heck, even open up the scrim and get the band involved. Six people watching cars speed by just takes all the life out of a number that should really end the act with a bang.

Actually, it should probably end the show (it already does, in a reprise). The second act, while shorter than the first, feels longer, because it doesn't add much to the proceedings. Do we really need "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"—yet another political satire (and one very clearly directed at the previous administration) after multiple effective cutting satires in the first act? "Shame," a number McKean talks through, rather than singing, seems to run on endlessly while a scantily clad Large gyrates seductively. And "You've Got a Friend in Me" finds itself sung by Lenox to a character dying alone in a hospital bed, a setting that pretty much sucks it dry of its light charm. This is a show where less may well be more—a slimmed-down 90-minute single act version may be just the thing to send the audience home smiling.

Harps and Angels runs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 22, 2010. For tickets and information, see www.centertheatregroup.org.

Center Theatre Group -- Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director -- presents the world premiere of Harps and Angels. Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman; Conceived by Jack Viertel. Scenic Design Stephan Olson; Costume Design Stephanie Kerley Schwartz; Lighting Design Brian Gale; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Production Design Marc I. Rosenthal; Music Direction and Arrangements Michael Roth; Orchestrations David O and Michael Roth; Music Consultant and Additional Arrangements Nadia DiGiallonardo; Casting Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Associate Producer Neel Keller; Production Stage Manager David S. Franklin; Musical Staging Warren Carlyle; Directed by Jerry Zaks.

Cast (in alphabetical order)
Ryder Bach
Storm Large
Adriane Lenox
Michael McKean
Katey Sagal
Matthew Saldivar


Photo: Craig Schwartz


- Sharon Perlmutter






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