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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Carry It On: Maureen McGovern's
Downbeat Musical Biography

Carry It On
Maureen McGovern
Maureen McGovern has been blessed with a stunningly clean and clear clarion voice with which she can produce the most beautiful vocal sounds with an ease and accuracy which is truly astounding. The most attractive and amazingly still golden-voiced McGovern has sustained a career for over forty years which has encompassed hit recordings, acclaimed albums, film, television, songwriting, and, increasingly, theatre—including leading roles on the Broadway stage. Anticipation has been high since it was announced that McGovern would be appearing this season at the Two River Theater in Carry It On, a one woman autobiographical musical featuring songs by iconic songwriters of her (baby boomer) generation, and "personal reflections on her life and events that shaped the nation."

Sadly, Carry It On is a disappointment. Despite the efforts of co-conceivers and authors Philip Himberg and McGovern to create a thoughtful solo musical, the result is a desultory, bifurcated, unfocused and randomly anecdotal presentation which plays far more like a cabaret performance than a theatre musical.

Although it would appear at first glance that two of the main threads here would naturally intertwine, they stubbornly fail to do so. The first is McGovern's autobiographic story of a straight-laced, goody two shoes Ohio Catholic schoolgirl with a deep, abiding love for her family, and a natural talent for singing. Coming of age during the era of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, she embraced the ethos and musical ethos of the era as she grew into a strong young woman who passionately supported the anti-war movement. Regrettably, her politics estranged her from the heroic World War II veteran father who had always meant so much to her.

The second, seemingly complementary thread is a recreation of America in the watershed, transformative years of the 1960s and '70s through a tapestry of the music of the era demonstrating the powerful influence of the music in proselytizing changing societal values. This era gave birth to a new culture embracing sexual liberation and the centrality of self actualization, and rejecting the constraints of socio-religious moral prohibitions.

The third major thread is the story of a later Maureen McGovern, a very talented, gritty woman who had early success via a 1972 chart topping recording of "The Morning After." However, over the ensuing years, McGovern was unable to capitalize on that success as the actions of predatory men forced her down a rocky road both in, and sometimes out, of show business. Such men also led her to an unhappy, unfulfilling love life. Finally, her theatre appearances earned her a home as part of the Broadway theatre community where she is honored and respected.

There is no through story line here, only a somewhat jumbled series of anecdotes from which these threads develop. The frame for justifying the randomness of the presentation is that, as she is nearing her sixtieth birthday, McGovern has been experiencing "numbness." While receiving an examination in a closed, claustrophobic MRI chamber, McGovern recalls bits and pieces of her life. However, the concert style presentation that follows does not invoke the feel of a dark moment reverie and one forgets the set-up almost immediately after it is presented. Later in the presentation there is a rather extended series of digital projections of the fluctuating, beeping line of the MRI readout.

The anecdotes presented never coalesce to give us a sense of a detailed story. Neither do they appear to give us any real insight into McGovern. Early on, there is a recounting of familial and societal events, as well as of the music which influenced her between her twelfth and twentieth birthdays (1961-1969).

Some of the songs which represent her life and musical influences between her twelfth and twentieth birthdays are sung in the following order: "Both Sides Now," "The Times They Are a-Changin'," "Bookends," a medley of four songs from West Side Story sung in McGovern's imitation of her 12 year old voice, "The Circle Game," "Where the Boys Are," "When I'm Sixty-Four," and "If I Had a Hammer." Although there are additional songs interposed, this list gives a picture of the random nature of Carry It On

Plopped down in the middle of this is the news that just two months after having two hit recordings (including the 1970 chart topping "The Morning After"), McGovern was booked by "Mister 40%" into a small Midwest dive. A couple of years later, she found herself flat broke in Los Angeles. There, employing a nom de everyday drudgery, Glenda Schwartz, she got herself a job as an office secretary.

Songs depicting loving memories of her father come to a sudden halt, with digital projections of Dr. Martin Luther King and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. McGovern's political awareness is rising (why should 18 year old boys be drafted for it when they do not have the right to vote?). All we are told of McGovern's participation in the protests of the day are her serious consideration of betraying her father by wearing his beloved WW II Army jacket to an anti-war rally (which, I would quickly add, she did not do), and being saddened by the death at Kent State of a former high school classmate. Photographs of a visit by her father and family to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial illustrate their eventual reconciliation. Did McGovern's father oppose the Civil Rights Movement? What was the shape and scope of her estrangement from him? What was he really all about? You will not find any answers to these questions as in Carry It On "Big Jim" McGovern has been reduced to a prop in a cabaret show. Furthermore, there is nothing depicted to indicate that McGovern had any connection to the civil rights movement, and only an unasserted suggestion of any connection to anti Vietnam War demonstrations. These facts severely undermines our belief in the anecdotal biography.

Aside from the sad tale of her marriage at the age of nineteen to a besotted musician, the sour anecdotes about some men in both her professional and private life do not amount to a can of beans. You are likely to groan at her story of a date with an artist whose sculptures were all of "tits ... yes, tits," and most female entertainers on tour likely could tell us any number of tales to match McGovern's one about an asshole whose advances assumed the proportions of attempted rape. Songs accompanying the story about her marriage include "You Love Me Too Late" and "I'm Leaving Tonight," one of a few songs on which she accompanies herself on the guitar. Most of Carry It On's musical accompaniment is provided on the piano by her accomplished long time musical director and arranger Jeffrey Harris.

To quote Charity Hope Valentine and her fellow taxi dancers, given McGovern's successful employment in motion pictures, concerts, on recordings and on stage (only the latter is covered to any extent), "there's gotta be something better than this."

The full throated, smooth and mellifluous voice of Maureen McGovern is an instrument which works best on power ballads. Although she displays a wide range of styles, her folk music styled songs are arranged and sung more stridently than they are sung by their writer-creators. Specifically, I believe that songs such as "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Both Sides Now" would be more effective if they were sung in styles more closely emulating the ruminating Bob Dylan, and the softly reedy Joni Mitchell (or Judy Collins).

Although McGovern informs us that her MRI results revealed that she was well, she never informs us of any details of the readings or what may have caused her "numbness." This further diminishes our belief in the presentation. After her bows, as we are starting to leave the theatre, McGovern finally sings "The Morning After" as an encore. By this time, the encore felt like an imposition rather than a treat.

I must make it clear that this review is not about anything other than the content of Carry It On. I have neither the knowledge nor inclination to make any aspersions upon the talented Maureen McGovern. Quite to the contrary, she appears to have led an exemplary life and devoted extensive time and energy to meritorious charities. I have no doubt but that Maureen McGovern is fully capable of delivering the highest level of cabaret, that is cabaret which transcends itself to become theatre. However, Carry It On is so contrived, randomly anecdotal, and musically scattershot that it fails even as cabaret. For cabaret requires establishing a sense of connection between performer and audience. In Carry It On, Maureen McGovern does not appear to be revealing her true self to us.

Carry It On continues performances Wednesday 1 pm (matinee) & 7 pm (evening)/ Evenings: Thurs. - Saturday 8 pm/ Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through April 22, 2012, at the Two River Theatre Company, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.

Carry It On conceived and written by Philip Himberg and Maureen McGovern/ directed by Philip Himberg

Cast:
Maureen McGovern


Photo: Ken Huth


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- Bob Rendell



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