The Education of Randy Newman
As a curriculum in how to make a musical out of a collection of songs by one of America's most celebrated living pop songwriters, The Education of Randy Newman flunks out rather shockingly. This revue, which aspires to tell composer/lyricist Newman's own life story through a mixture of many of his good old (and a few dismal new) songs, defeats the best efforts of a hard-working, thoroughly professional cast, and makes the writer look like the most hollow and egotistical fella in show business.
The show, conceived by Michael Roth, Jerry Patch and Newman himself, opens with a new and somewhat amusing number which says if a descendant of John Adams can write a book about his family, why can't Newman write a show about his, and includes film music greats Alfred and Lionel Newman. But the problem is the vast majority of the songs are pre-existing Newman hits grafted onto a ramshackle narrative about his family, and it just doesn't work. Act one uses Newman songs like "Dixie Flyer," "Louisiana 1927," "Rednecks," and "There's A Party at My House" to depict his youth and adolescence. The act closes with a slick rendition of "I Love L.A.," which is where Newman's journey led him to fame, fortune, drugs, a bad marriage and child neglect, at least as presented here.
Act two is more entertaining, including as it does such worthy and apt numbers as "It's Money That I Love," his early big pop hit "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," the wildly popular novelty song "Short People," and the Toy Story 2 beauty "When He Loved Me." But act two is about as long as act one, bringing the total running time to over two hours, which is a good half hour too long for what is still, no matter how you slice it, a songbook revue.
Directed and staged with a lot of hyper-kinetic but ill-focused energy by Gordon Edelstein and Myron Johnson, The Education of Randy Newman gets better than it gives with a most talented, likable cast. Daniel Jenkins as the Newman facsimile approximates Newman's persona, style and vocal delivery very well, and he shows as he did in another troubled but far better musical, Big, that he is a major talent just waiting for the right role. Jeff Trachta has charisma to burn and delivers the most accomplished physical and vocal performances in the male ensemble. Former Greatest American Hero star William Katt and Alan Louis also deliver accomplished vocals. Lovena Fox possesses a joyful presence and soulful voice that bode well for her future endeavors, while Cathy Richardson is a match for Jenkins in bringing dramatic credibility to her featured moments, as well as a tantalizing earthiness. Brooke Sunny Moriber, saddled with the role of Newman's beleaguered wife through much of act two, looks too young to fit in with the rest of the company and has a vocal delivery more suited to Broadway material than to Newman's pop stylings.
The show utilizes Wendall Harrington's rather attractive projections to the point of overkill, though David Weiner's lighting design is a definite plus. Still, the minuses outweigh the pluses in this case, and Newman, who seemed such an amiable presence on last year's Oscar Awards show when he finally took one home, comes off as an egotistical, chemically dependent jerk in this presentation. Whether or not this show ever opens on Broadway, as it allegedly hopes to, it seems certain that Seattle is not seeing the birth of another Hairspray sized mega-hit here.
The Education of Randy Newman at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, in Downtown Seattle, through December 1. For further information visit ACT's web-site at www.acttheatre.org.