An Ambitious, Sprawling Secondhand Lions
Also see David's review of Xanadu
Based on a book and film screenplay by Tim McCanlies, Secondhand Lions unfolds as a flashback of Walter Caldwell, who returns to the Texas ranch he called home from 1962 on, when his ne'er do well honky-tonk mother Mae left him for the summer with his great uncles Hub and Garth McCann, who are rumored to have been big-time bank robbers in their youth and to be guarding a fortune in loot from those exploits. The elder brother, crusty, sulky Hub, dismisses the boy, but Garth fills the lad's head with tales of the brothers' "real" adventures as members of the French Foreign Legion, fighting a flamboyant and wily Sultan who has manipulated a princess named Samira into a politically advantageous marriage. Samira is a liberated and swashbuckling gal who, with the help of a smitten Hub, finally escapes the Sultan's clutches in the course of the possibly tall tales that increasingly mesmerize not only young Walter, but even his one, initially skeptical, peer, a little red-headed encyclopedia of a girl named Jane. The elder Hub faces a health setback after a skirmish, but the two youngsters revive his passion for life with a project to restore an old biplane the brothers have at the ranch. Absentee mom Mae returns with a scheming so-called private detective suitor named Stan out to steal the brother's fortunes. It is left to young Walter to find a way to remedy this. His efforts play into the wrap-up of the flashback, and return us to the present where the ultimate fate of the brothers and the truth behind the tales from their youth are revealed by the end of this charming but lumbering show.
Scott Schwartz directs with an uneven hand; some scenes, especially the more realistic and intimate moments, are deeply affecting, while other broader ones, and some cartoonier characters, are jarring. Despite starring roles, Mark Jacoby and Gregg Edelman as the elder Hub and Garth aren't front and center enough, with the authors having expanded their youthful counterparts' roles (played winningly by Kevin Earley and Jared Michael Brown) in the Middle East scenes. The pair are accomplished pros and, especially Jacoby, so grand as father in the original Ragtime, deserve meatier moments to define and clarify their characters. The near-closing moment when they and young Walter (an aces-high child actor named Johnny Rabe) kick up their heels in a spritely number "Don't Count Us Out" seems too little too late. Young Mr. Rabe is a kid you can get behind very easily, singing and acting like an accomplished vet but never too slick, and his female counterpart Sophia Anne Caruso as Jane is just as savvy, despite her role bearing rather too much of a dead-ringer for little Margaret from the "Dennis the Menace" comic strip.
The show and the best number in it are stolen by a supporting character, dynamite Jason Danieley as the Sultan. With a flair and power reminiscent of a young Jack Cassidy, Danieley makes the act one showpiece number "Sand" a showstopper, handling devilishly fast patter lyrics with a flair that that could put Danny Kaye to shame, and scoring just as big in the duet "Not Like Anyone I've Ever Known" he shares with the vocally stellar Mr. Earley. Danieley brings shading and likability to his potentially two-dimensional role.
Unfortunately, the role of Mae has been written as totally one-dimensional and apparently the usually staunch Kendra Kassebaum was directed to play her as an amalgam of Ella Peterson, Audrey from Little Shop and Miss Adelaide. Walter can't possibly be that good of a kid, having been raised by a woman of such little redeeming human value. As the princess Samira, Jenny Powers shows off a set of vocal pipes to be reckoned with, and gives a zestful account of herself, even when garbed in some of Ann Hould-Ward's biggest misfires among her variable costume designs.
Justin Huertas is a kick in the pants as the Sultan's sidekick Achmed, while Nick DeSantis and Matthew Posner stand out in smaller roles. Ryah Nixon, a shiny star as Maureen in the 5th's Rent, has now officially been wasted languishing in the back rows of the ensemble of two 5th Avenue shows in a row (as she was in Pirates of Penzance).
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse (whose fine work on TV's "Smash" did not go unnoticed) gives his dancers some slick and sassy steps in flashier numbers. Musical direction by the invaluable Ian Eisendrath hits his usual high mark. Veteran Broadway scenic designer Eugene Lee does equally well with the visual requirements of the earthy Texas locales as well as the exotic Middle Eastern ones, and Howell Binkley's lighting design is beautifully realized. Elements which flow from stagecraft into cinematic film footage are sumptuously stitched together and just plain fun.
Songsmiths Zachary and Weiner embrace, if not yet wholly put their own imprint on, the classic musical theatre score form, with classic style love songs like "You Have Brought Me Love" and the rousing upbeat second-act sparkler "Fly Into a Better Tomorrow." Comparing them to, say, Ahrens and Flaherty, this is their My Favorite Year, and I can't wait for their Ragtime. Other highlights in the worthy musical score include the lush love ballad "You Have Brought Me Love," registering in a Rodgers & Hammerstein vein, and "Fly Into A Better Tomorrow," an old-fashioned rouser that builds into a great production number.
Whether Broadway is ready to embrace Secondhand Lions once it has evolved a bit more or not, I enjoyed seeing the creators work in progress version, and wish them well.
Secondhand Lions runs through October 6th, 2013, at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., in downtown Seattle . For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.