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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Waiting for the Moon
World Premiere of New Frank Wildhorn Musical

Also see Bob's review of A Child's Guide to Innocence

Waiting for the Moon
Lauren Kennedy and Jarrod Emick
Nothing that you will see and learn about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the course of viewing Waiting for the Moon: An American Love Story will take you beyond or beneath the surface of a few well known facts that you would find in a brief biographic entry in an encyclopedia. Nothing that made them who they were is shown or explored, and there is nothing that the cipher on stage labeled Scott does that gives us any reason to believe that we are in the presence of a writer of consequence. In fact, to anyone in the audience who does not know of The Great Gatsby or the real F. Scott Fitzgerald, Waiting for the Moon is likely to seem the story of a not very bright marginal writer, who parlayed his first and only successful novel into a short lifetime of wastrel behavior and notoriety. The sad truth is that authors Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy do not have the slightest interest in the real Scott and Zelda. Their only purpose is to use the tragedy of their lives to fashion an emotionally fictional romantic musical. They have ended up with an emotionally false one.

At her family manse in Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda (Lauren Kennedy) sings a generic, derivative, pretty, "I want it all" ballad ("Everything and More"). Scene shifts to a dance at the pavilion of the Montgomery Country Club. The coquettish Zelda flirts outrageously with all the boys. Scott (Jarrod Emick) in an Army uniform (it is 1918) and Zelda meet, and, within seconds, they duet in a generic, pretty romantic ballad ("Something Enchanted") in which the title phrase is repeatedly repeated, pop song style. The dance band strikes up a tune and immediately Scott and Zelda sing a second, pretty, generic love song ("Always"). Although Scott and Zelda have barely met, they have already sung two love songs. And the audience has been (mis)treated to three consecutive ballads. Oh, Scott does tell her that he is from Minnesota and is an aspiring writer. You want to know how this intellectual genius (yes, he was) got here. Well, forget about it!

Back in St. Paul, Scott is now at his desk writing, while Jack Murphy, reaching deep down, has him singing "I’ve Got Things to Say." (To my ears, the notes underlying the title lyric were the same as those on which sit the title of Evening Primrose’s "Take Me to the World." This was the first of two times that my tune detector went off.)

Zelda plots in song ("Yes") to be cold to Scott until she wins him. However, when Scott tells her that his novel is to published (it is now 1920), Zelda melts, and Scott and Zelda duet the bubbly "You Do Everything for Me" (reaching for a clever rhyme, Murphy has Zelda sing apropos of nothing, "You always surprise me; You plagiarize me"). When they arrive in New York and learn that Scott’s first novel (This Side of Paradise) has sold 50,000 copies, they reprise the song ("Your stories amaze me; Your body sautés me").

Projected newspaper headlines tells us that Scott and Zelda have determinedly embarked on a string of escapades to become gossip column celebrities as they cavort in New York, on shipboard, and in London ("Money to Burn"). However, the Fitzgeralds are spending money faster than Scott can make it as Scott’s second novel is a dud and his play fails.

Scott and Zelda go off to Paris, so Scott can concentrate on completing a new novel. The first sign of trouble is that Zelda is jealous when a Herald Tribune reporter interviews Scott and ignores her. Scott types and Zelda shops. Gatsby is completed, Paris is reading it, and Scott and Zelda sing ("Back on Top"). Scott revels in the attention which is directed at him, especially from les dames.

When Zelda expresses hostility, Scott tells her, "You didn’t take your medication ... I can always tell because you become insecure and unreasonable." Oh, you didn’t know she had serious problems and was on medication? Don’t worry about it, Murphy and Wildhorn never told us. Zelda sings the prosy "What About Me" ("It’s your magic we conjure; What about me" / "The human heart's a fragile thing; it needs to breathe, it needs to sing").

Sound of shattering glass. The scene shifts to a North Carolina sanitarium where patient Zelda is being interviewed by reporter Ben Simon (Ben Dibble). He asks Zelda what happened after the party. Zelda (we will find out in act two that she is here very far gone) sings brightly, strongly and inspirationally, the destined to be widely sung, popular hit "Something in My Life (bringing back my life to me"). I think that it is at moments like this that Wildhorn’s supporters and detractors find themselves furthest apart.

Waiting for the Moon is essentially a two character musical. With the exception of a couple of lines sung by a chanteuse in a Parisian nightclub (act one) and a duet which Zelda sings with Edouard (Adam Pelty), whom she picks up for a night in the sack (act two), no one but Scott and Zelda sing except as part of an ensemble. Fitzgerald’s literary agent Max Perkins is an off stage presence. Who were Scott and Zelda’s friends? Did they ever have an intelligent conversation with anyone? Was Scott part of a literary circle? Did they ever pick up a book? Discuss world events? Did Murphy and Wildhorn ever seek to understand why they were doomed?

Act two. We find Scott and Zelda in San Rafael. Gatsby has been panned. Zelda is drinking and flirting with men. Scott is broke, hostile and impotent. Scott tells Zelda that she only married him because of his success. Zelda tells Scott that he smells of other women. (Is Scott only impotent with her?) Zelda picks up Edouard and brings him back to their hotel room ("In the Heat of the Night"). Scott catches them en dishabille.

Flash forward to Zelda in the sanitarium being interviewed by Ben Simon. She tells him the aftermath of San Rafael, "I swallowed pills and was hospitalized at a clinic in Paris." There are several clever scenes and a witty song depicting Scott’s legendary misadventure in Hollywood. Scott writes to Zelda in sanitarium. Zelda awaits him. Scott bemoans his lost talent ("Losing the Light") and lost love ("Waiting for the Moon"). There is a twist here that I cannot reveal. I kind of saw it coming. I think that the authors meant it to be that way. However, it is more gimmicky than involving or touching.

Zelda is now profoundly irrational. However, Wildhorn and Murphy make her miraculously rational so that she can sing to the warm and sympathetic reporter Simon, the pop sounding "I know how to dance, its ‘Easy’." Another restoration is in store for Zelda for her 11 o’clock diva number "Remember" (Now and forever, I will remember you"). This song is even weak among its type. However, given its generic pop nature, if audiences concur, it can easily be replaced.

There is an intended-to-be uplifting, metaphysical, reunited in death appendage at the finish. However, given the unappealing natures of Waiting for the Moon’s Scott and Zelda, and the anti-romantic nature of their relationship, it is completely lacking in resonance.

Lauren Kennedy’s Zelda never physically changes over the 30-year period covered. It is clearly the intent of Wildhorn, Murphy and director Vincent Marini not to have Kennedy accurately portray any of the ravages which time and tide inflicted on her. This is a pop diva vision that might be described as Zelda very light. With a few more performances under her belt, Kennedy’s lovely voice will surely become more secure.

Jarrod Emick does a good job, both dramatically and vocally. Of course, there is only so much that any performer can do with a very long, very underwritten role. Ben Dibble is solid in the non-singing role of reporter Ben Simon. The ensemble sings, looks and moves in fine fashion. Leslie Alexander as Zelda’s mother and Adam Pelty as Edouard get the largest chances to shine, and take full advantage.

The discovery of the evening (although Burlington County theatergoers may be ahead of us here) is director Vincent Marini. The flawless professionalism of his staging is invigorating. Marini has coordinated the work of his artistic staff into a seamless whole. His stage pictures alone make this production worthy of our attention. This is not primarily a dancing show, but Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is fluid and entertaining, and perfectly fulfills its intended function as a scene setter.

The distinctive work of set designer Rob Odorisio will likely change the way in which much of our theatre will be designed in the future. I do not have the technical knowledge or the vocabulary to adequately describe his magic. Odorisio, who worked similar magic on a smaller scale for Paper Mill’s Harold and Maude, with the incalculable assistance of Lighting Designer Howell Binkley and Projection Designer Michael Clark, has combined the use of sliding panels with various digital projection techniques, film, and complex lighting effects to create mood, cinematic movement, detail, brightness, and sheer beauty. Forty years ago, when the musical Golden Boy primitively, in comparison with today’s technology, employed projections on Broadway, it seemed that they could one day become a dominant element in scenic design. Well, that day is here with a bang. Of course, as with any such technology, is only as good as the imagination and taste of the artists who employ it. The result here is breathtaking.

Costume Designer Janine McCabe’s lovely, flattering costumes complete the visual design elements. Orchestrator Kim Scharnberg and Conductor-Arranger Ron Melrose, and Sound Designer Nick Kourtides have managed to make an eight piece orchestra sound full in a very large auditorium without heavy and distinctive synthesizer tones.

Waiting for the Moon is the second F. Scott Fitzgerald musical that I have seen this season. The other one, Peter Mills’ The Pursuit of Persephone which was workshopped by Manhattan’s Prospect Theatre, essentially covered Fitzgerald's years at Princeton University. I commend it to Messrs. Wildhorn and Murphy. It could teach them much about Scott Fitzgerald. More importantly, it could provide them an excellent object lesson on how to construct a musical.

The virtues and problems here are encapsulated in a description of the stunning nourish, black and white film sequence which begins the evening. There is a giant, razor sharp montage showing a series of close-ups of a male writer sweating away at an old fashioned typewriter. Ominous, heavy sounds, including those made by the typewriter reverberate loudly, clearly and chillingly throughout the theatre. We see the moving carriage, we see the sweat on the face of the writer,, we see the letters striking the page, and we feel the palpable menace in the stillness when the writer’s flow comes to a dead halt. Really thrilling stuff, seeing and feeling, feeling the torture of Scott Fitzgerald in the throes of trying to create. However, when the sequence is repeated in its chronological context late in the second act (and, with flawless stagecraft, blended into its live re-creation), it turns out that the man behind the typewriter is not Scott Fitzgerald or any creative writer. Inexplicably, we find that we are only watching the fictional reporter Ben Simon writing his obit on Zelda.

It is manifestly clear that successful popular composer Frank Wildhorn loves musical theatre. Sadly, so far that love remains largely unrequited. One problem here appears to be his choice of Jack Murphy as librettist. There are glaring errors in text and construction that any experienced, knowledgeable theatre lyricist and/or book writer would have surely avoided. What is it that so often keeps Wildhorn from reaching out to find such collaborators who, at the least, will fulfill basic requirements of construction and character development? Wildhorn may the culprit for the jolting intrusion of ill fitting pop songs, but, working with an equally high powered lyricist and book writer and director, it is less likely that the integrity of crucial moments would be so readily sacrificed to inappropriate soaring melody. Oops, I may have inadvertently answered my own question.

Although it is not nearly as enervating as the leaden Wildhorn-Murphy collaboration The Civil War, Waiting for the Moon is too generic and incompetently written to reverse the critical battering to which Wildhorn’s theatre projects have been subject. However, thanks to the solid staging skills of Lenape Artistic Director Vincent Marini, ably abetted by the stunning set design of Rob Odorisio, the choreography of Andy Blankenbeuhler and a superb design team, the Lenape production of Waiting for the Moon plays, looks and moves like a spanking new Broadway musical. As such, it has genuine entertainment value. And it is certainly of interest to musical theatre buffs and Wildhorn fans. Please be advised that if you wish to see this show, you should see it now.

Waiting for the Moon: An American Love Story continues performances through July 31, 2005 at the Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center, 130 Tomlinson Mill Road, Marlton, New Jersey 08053. Box Office: 856-983-3366; online www.sjtheater.com.

Waiting for the Moon: An American Love Story Music by Frank Wildhorn; Book and Lyrics by Jack Murphy; directed by Vincent Marini

Cast:
Scott .......... Jarrod Emick
Zelda .......... Lauren Kennedy
Ben Simon .......... Ben Dibble
Ensemble .......... Leslie Alexander, Nova Bergeron, Rachel Bress,
Alison Cimmet, Terri Dixon, Scott Greer,
Richard J. Hinds, Keith Kuhl, Mike Mcgowan,
Jesse Nager, Jessica Lea Patty, Adam Pelty
Kristin Piro, Eric Stretch, Matt Wall, Brandi Wooten


Photo: Mark Garvin for Lenape Regional Performing Arts Center


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- Bob Rendell



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