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What Makes Sammy Run?

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Forget for a moment about the frenetic spirit of unbridled entrepreneurism. Let's instead ponder the truly bizarre mindset of modern musical makers who don't think they stand on the shoulders of giants as much as they think they can lift up the giants. It's a scary subset of artist, but one apparently here to stay.

Their efforts aren't just limited to Broadway revivals that fix shows that weren't broken (the recent Fiddler on the Roof or Oklahoma!), or out-of-town productions angling for New York berths by reclaiming imperfect shows and gutting them of their uniqueness (Joe DiPietro's Allegro). Sometimes they also turn their gazes to decades-old bombs, rewrite them, and try to pass them off as what should have been done the first time.

Well, that's director-librettist Robert Armin's goal with his new version of the 1964 semi-flop What Makes Sammy Run? But why bother? The show, with its score by Ervin Drake and book by Budd and Stuart Schulberg, based on Budd's novel, is no lost classic - it's a typical '60s fly-by-nighter that might have been assembled with a modicum of craft, but is no work of art. Sentimental reasons aside (Armin fell in love with the 1966 West Coast production, starring Frank Gorshin), this exhumation just leaves Armin and his 10-person cast covered in dirt.

To be fair, though, this is not a willfully hateful botch along the lines of David Henry Hwang's Flower Drum Song revisal - Armin's affection for the story shines through at every juncture, and you sense his desire to do right by the show. You can even understand his reasons for the changes, which are aimed at recapturing the 1941 source novel's spirited grit, which Armin felt was eviscerated in the original 1964 Broadway mounting. And the ideas behind Armin's alterations are solid in theory.

But the original production was directed by Abe Burrows, librettist for Guys and Dolls and director-librettist for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - no theatrical slouch. If Burrows softened the story's hard edges, it was likely not done indiscriminately, but to make this rough tale about a copy boy-cum-Hollywood mogul both palatable and playable. And at any rate, his helming (aided by the popular Steve Lawrence in the central role of Sammy Glick) kept the show running (if not recouping) for well over a year.

Armin's treatment, lacking Burrows's buoyancy, gets too weighed down by arch, sympathetic characters to ever get on its feet, let alone start running. And Drake's mediocre, generically upbeat score doesn't help; he's tweaked it for this production, dropping a set-piece production number or two, reinserting one tune cut in 1964, and writing four new songs. But their impact on the show is at best negligible - Armin's direction and Jack Dyville's choreography are so perfunctory that they rob the score of what musicality it has, and give the entire evening the feel of a David Leveaux-directed musical. (The musical director/arranger, not at all to blame, is Richard Danley.)

Most of this might be forgivable with a charismatic Sammy, which is sorely needed given his ambitiously unlikable treatment in Armin's version. But while Carl Anthony Tramon is energetic and sings decently enough, he utterly lacks the inner spark or trace of wily cleverness that might allow Sammy to win us over in spite of himself. Employing a consistently raspy bark and a reluctant enthusiasm to kick up his heels, he at times recalls Dana Carvey's Church Lady from Saturday Night Live. Never does he seem like the do-or-die go-getter he should be.

His castmates are scarcely better. Larry Daggett is unduly stiff as Al Manheim, Sammy's reluctant mentor and a theatre critic-turned-screenwriter who falls prey to Sammy's cutthroat tactics; Moira Stone, playing an activist screenwriter torn between Sammy and Al, looks and sounds like a cut-rate Karen Akers. Jessica Luck is fine as Sammy's neglected New York girlfriend, but fails to convince as a screen siren who also falls under Sammy's spell. Darron Cardoza, channeling Albert Brooks by way of Adam Sandler, redefines grating with his embarrassing work as Sammy's ghostwriter.

At least Kristin McLaughlin is legitimately alluring as a society girl who takes an on-again-off-again shine to Sammy, and provides a tinge of the erotic to most of the scenes she's in. She can't, however, raise the temperature much on this otherwise frigid show. For that, you need real musical comedy know-how - an Abe Burrows, maybe? Oh well. I missed the original so I can't definitively say that, lacking in energy and excitement though it might be, it's not an improvement over the original. But even if Armin has made it better, he still hasn't made it good.

What Makes Sammy Run?
Through January 29
Running time: 3 hoours, with one intermission
West End Theatre, 263 West 86th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, second floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Smarttix

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