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Golden Rainbow

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - September 28, 2023

Max Von Essen and Benjamin Pajak
Photo by Rider R. Foster
Winners! Losers! Sinners! Boozers! So goes a line in "24 Hours a Day," the opening number of Golden Rainbow, the 1968 musical being given a rare airing at York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti, quickly establishing where we are (Rat Pack Las Vegas), and what the mood will be (1960s upbeat). Accompanied by a healthy dose of "Bah-da-ba-da-ba-pah"s and dancers twitching and snapping their fingers, we know we're in Caesars Palace territory: Dean Martin may be around the corner, and Jaye P. Morgan is probably a couple blocks down the Strip. It's a swell tacky opening number and Golden Rainbow is mostly a swell tacky time.

With a book by Ernest Kinoy and music and lyrics by Walter Marks, Golden Rainbow was a vehicle for Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Freely adapted from Arnold Schulman's mid-1950s stage success A Hole in the Head, which was freely adapted into a 1959 Frank Capra film featuring the Oscar-nominated "High Hopes" (which gets a passing reference here), it's a father-and-son story, with the Eydie character somewhat grafted on–she doesn't exist in the original at all.

Larry (Max Von Essen) operates a seedy, failing Vegas hotel with the help of his adoring adolescent son Ally (Benjamin Pajak), and with foreclosure imminent, he tries to wrest the needed funds from his late wife's sister Judy (Mara Davi), a successful buyer for Lord & Taylor living a cosmopolitan Manhattan life. While she books a room at the Tropicana and battles with Larry for custody of Ally, Larry tries to hustle his way into a business deal with goodfella Carmine Malatesta (Robert Cuccioli), who's building a garish hotel-casino next door. Larry, a frequent screw-up but a devoted dad, wrestles with what's best for his son, climaxing in his delivery of the one hit song, "I've Gotta Be Me," which you can bet will get reprised.

It was never a great libretto to begin with, and the 89-year-old Marks, grinning in the audience last night, evidently did a lot of surgery on it: lyrics rewritten, songs repurposed, and a couple of important new characters written in. Chief among them are Carmine, given a merry, hedonistic reading by Cuccioli, and Jill (Danielle Lee Greaves), owner of a diner failing in much the same way Larry's hotel is. Her establishing number, "Matter of Time," comes out of nowhere, and we don't really know why she's here, till the end.

It's a fun first act, though, and boosted by game performers and rafter-raising vocals. Von Essen may not quite have the brash, I-can-do-anything confidence of Steve Lawrence in his prime, but he sings sweetly and conveys the conflict of a dad who loves his son but screws up just about everything. Davi, despite a questionable choice of Mufti costume–would a fashionable 1968 Lord & Taylor exec really prance around in a bare midriff?–has Judy's sharpness and steely exterior masking an underlying warmth, and if you close your eyes when she holds a long note at the end of "He Needs Me Now" or "How Could I Be So Wrong?," yeah, Eydie's there.

As for Pajak, I'll say it flat out: The kid's a star. You were charmed by his Winthrop to Hugh Jackman's Harold Hill; you were moved by his Oliver Twist at Encores!; now, given a demanding leading role, he displays the comic timing of a Catskills veteran, harmonizes like the vocal wonder he is, and is truly, truly touching. "Pop! You promised!," Ally woundedly blurts as Larry divulges his decision on his future, and our hearts break, along with his. Somebody should revive Mame, if only to give Pajak a go at Patrick Dennis.

Marks, whose previous, somewhat superior score was Bajour, keeps the melodies and bah-da-ba-da-ba-pah rhythms coming, and his lyrics are neat and occasionally quite clever. He's at his best in "We Got Us," with Larry and Ally irresistibly duetting on their mutual admiration, and "Taste," where Carmine, conceiving a Vegas floor show, declares, "All you need is good taste," while revealing his pronounced lack of it. The resulting entertainment, the James Bond sendup "Dr. Thunderfinger," which wasn't in the original, drips with exuberant bad taste and couldn't live in any year but 1968.

Sometime during intermission, the script runs off to Hoover Dam and plunges in. Second-act implausibilities pile up on top of one another: Larry loses the mortgage money, in a way so stupid even Larry would never do it. He and Judy discover they're attracted to one another, which has no emotional ballast in all that has preceded it and would probably be a little creepy even if Steve and Eydie acted it; their duet, "Suddenly You"–a bossa nova, naturally–received, at best, uncomfortable applause. And, with the hotel slipping from Larry's fingers and disaster looming, a deus ex machina is introduced–one so unlikely that, if it actually existed, it should have been mentioned several scenes before, and withholding it is just dishonest.

But, while some of their librettos are great, you don't go to 1960s musicals for the books, do you? It's the energy, the eagerness to please, the hummability and elaborate perfect rhymes and bah-da-ba-da-ba-pahs. These Golden Rainbow possesses in happy abundance, and, aided by a splendid troupe in various supporting roles–Maria Wirries, Gina Milo, Jillian Louis, Nick Cearley, Jonathan Brody, and Felipe Barbosa Bombonato–kept me smiling pretty constantly, even through the wince-worthy second-act infelicities. Stuart Ross directs with a keen eye for '60s frippery, and David Hancock Turner's five-piece band rocks. It's there through Sunday. Go have a good time.

Golden Rainbow
Through October 1, 2023
York Theatre Company
Theatre at St. Jeans, 150 E. 76th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: