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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Hans Christian Andersen


American Conservatory Theatre has opened their 2000-01 season with the World Premier of Frank Loesser musical Hans Christian Andersen. I wish I could say that this musical was a success but it needs a lot of work. In recent seasons ACT has attempted to give us pre Broadway bound shows and they have only been partially successful in their endeavors. Frankly, of all the opening shows the company has presented, this one is the weakest. It will need more work before it can see the lights of Broadway.

Back in 1951 when I was at Warners, I knew that RKO was producing a musical with Danny Kaye called Hans Christian Andersen. I had worked with Danny Kaye on "Inspector Calls" in '48 and I had become friends with the great comic actor. When he was filming the RKO film, I was able to go over to the studio several times to watch them filming. I could see this was going to be one delightful successful musical. The Frank Loesser score was terrific.

When the film was released it was an instant success. Many of Loesser's songs were being sung all over the radio and in clubs. "Wonderful Copenhagen" became a instant hit. Other songs like "Thumbelina," "No Two People," and "Anywhere I Wander" rose in the music charts.

In recent years it was announced several times that this delightful musical would be transferred to the stage. However, nothing ever came of it. Finally a talented team was brought together to produce the musical for the opening production of the season at ACT. There was a possibility that is would be a strong contender for a Broadway slot. All looked good on paper.

The show was adapted by the distinguished Irish playwright Sebastian Barry and directed by the acknowledged choreographer Martha Clarke, who had been hailed for her ground breaking, visually inspired music theater pieces. Hans would be played by Tony winner John Glover, who in my estimation is one of our great living actors. The musical would have much airborne flying by artists from the Bolshoi and Mark Morris Dance Group. There would be performers floating through the air during the entire performance. It looked to be a super show.

On opening night a full crowd waited to see what would come across the Geary Theatre stage. First let me say, if you are expecting a repeat of the Danny Kaye's film you would be sorely disappointed. It is not the cheerful musical that I remember. Now we have a production that is ethereal. The scenes are disjointed and some of the music is very melancholy. The Loesser songs come and go very rapidly and they are there mostly as afterthoughts. Once in a while there is an upbeat song, but it comes only in small sprits.

Instead of an overture I heard an instrumental prelude and on the stage I saw the shadow author on wires drifting down from the framework. He was dressed all in black and had a black stove pipe hat. I then saw what appeared to be mermaids floating around him on wire. There was undersea background. At first, I thought I was going to see Das Rhinegold and these were the Rhine maidens. Instead of Wagner we would have Loesser music. Most of the audience members were getting restless since the prelude was much too long. How long can you see the author and the mermaids floating about on the stage with dreamlike music coming from the orchestra?

Up from the floor came Hans himself, played by John Glover. It look like he was rising from a manhole cover. He was dress all in black, long black coat, black pants and the stove pipe hat. He looked like Abraham Lincoln without the beard.

At first Mr. Glover's was not projecting very well. He was very melancholy. In those first few minutes he wanted to bear his tormented soul to the audience. We then had three additional actors and a little aluminum toy house about the size of Mr. Glover come on to the bare stage. (We still had people floating in the background.) One landed on the peak of the roof of the house and I thought he might have a fiddle under his coat and he was going to play Fiddler on the Roof. Even the audience snickered at this. I could not understand what some of the actors were saying but later I came to realize they were the parents and a mush mouth grandfather of Hans and now the author was four years old. John Glover played the role as a grown up with a little change in his voice.

The following scenes were disjointed and we saw incidents in Hans' life including a picnic with his parents, an embarrassing day at school and even a hanging. The director also threw in a Hans Christian Andersen story along the way, one I had never heard before. The tale was about soldier played by Han's father going off fight in a Napoleonic War. He met a witch resting on the limb of a tree. The witch told him he can have all the money inside the truck if he will go inside to retrieve a small box. There is supposed to be a mean dog inside the trunk guarding the treasure. The dog turns out to be the nicest dog you would ever like to see. In fact, the dog had more life than the actors. Several times the dog yawn like he was bored and the audience broke out in laughter.

John Glover admits he is no singer and he isn't. It would have been better if he, like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, just spoke the words and let the orchestra and chorus carry the melody.

One of the most bizarre scenes I have ever seen on the stage was the number "No Two People". Its a lovely song about two young persons in love. Charming melody and lyrics. Here we have two young lovers caught in an illicit love affair. They are about to be hanged for this desecration. Really, they have ropes around their neck and they are in a cart. Before being hanged they sing the song. Weird to say the least.

The end of the first act saw Hans now grown up going to Copenhagen. There were more little aluminum houses on the stage and a young girl comes walking from stage left with four colored balloons. Suddenly she is lifted up to the sky and we see her floating about. I thought now we have Gigi which was one of the musical logos of that musical. Mr. Glover tried to put some life into it, but it just did not come across as a joyful song. That closed the first act.

The second act was so much better. Mr. Glover in the same outfit came out from stage right and gave us a charming fairly tale story. Now Mr. Glover and his great speaking voice shone. The story was about the heart and memories of an abused teapot, an enchanting story and told very charmingly by Mr. Glover. This was quickly followed by the familiar The Emperor and the Nightingale. This was elegantly mounted with a striking Chinese backdrop and exquisite costumes of the actors. The nightingale was played by Bolshoi star ballerina Galina Alexandrova. She was enchanting in the role. Also performed with perfection was the tale of the Ugly Duckling with another actor singing the song while John quacked. The final story was The King's New Clothes, told beautifully by Mr Glover to a bunch of children. The second act is a theatricalized retelling of the stories and this is the strongest feature of the musical, with the exception of the Little Match Girl who freezes to death after she runs out of matches. This tale could have been avoided since it jarred the attractiveness of the second act. Mr. Glover was engaging in the second act and he made the production worthwhile.

As I said there are some very good things about this production but it does need work. The first act is all psychological mumbo jumbo and too philosophical in the treatment of the author. The second act is a lovely straight forward musical production with charming tales and a brief story of unrequited love for Jenny Lind. Also there is no need for all those flying people through out the whole production. Yes, I know this is suppose to be a dream but these acrobatics take away from the actors on the stage. You really get tired seeing those people doing somersaults, twisting and turning, diving etc. It was going on all the time. Enough already! Loesser's songs were being pushed into the background and they were not getting the proper play. Mr. Glover is a damn fine actor and he tells the stories distinctively however I just wish he talk the songs rather then try to sing them. Also get rid of that silly scene of the doomed lovers singing a beautiful song in the first act. If all that can be change this musical might have a chance in New York.

"Hans Christian Andersen" runs until October 8 at ACT Theatre on Geary Street. Their next production will be Moliere's The Misanthrope, which will open on October 19.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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