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Broadway & the Bard

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Len Cariou
Photo by Carol Rosegg

William Shakespeare's plays are an obvious fit within the musical theatre idiom, their sprawling themes and natural lyricism giving way so easily to song that it's no surprise they've been adapted to the form so many times. So the new offering at the Lion Theatre celebrating the union of both forms, appropriately titled Broadway & the Bard, does not want for coherence or authenticity. And considering that its sole performer is Len Cariou, a Broadway stalwart of several decades who was immortalized in the similarly contemporary-meets-classic musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a lack of star quality could not remotely be a problem. So why does this breezy, watchable, and usually enjoyable outing fall short of a three-point landing?

Blame, if you must, the creators' insistence on not taking the easy route. Cariou and his co-conceivers Barry Kleinbort, who also directed, and Mark Janas, who's the musical director and onstage pianist, were clearly less interested in putting on just any show than in investigating their theme with surprise and wit. As Cariou explains early on, the goal is to pair favorite Shakespearean speeches from one half of his career with musical theatre compositions that either support or refute the words. In theory, this would result in a richly textured, even frequently moving, show that intertwines the past and the present until nothing is left but theatre in its purest, most elemental form. But from the first two numbers, it doesn't quite work out that way.

Rodgers & Hart's "Falling in Love With Love" (from The Boys From Syracuse, of course) is a modern masterpiece of romantic introspection, but hearing it wedged within the airier "Love I Hear" (from Stephen Sondheim's score to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and both laid out as expansions on Duke Orsino's "If music be the food of love" music from Twelfth Night diminishes, rather than elevates, all three. And when, just minutes later, King Henry V's "Once more unto the breach" rouser at the walls of Harfleur melts into Charles Strouse and Lee Adams's title tune from Applause (the 1970 All About Eve-based musical in which Cariou appeared opposite Lauren Bacall), the disjointedness is jarring rather than jovial.

That's true as well of linking Love's Labour's Lost to Carnival by way of Bob Merrill's aching "Her Face," Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg's "Down With Love" (Hooray for What!) to the mind of a growling Iago, or, to a lesser extent, Much Ado About Nothing to George and Ira Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It." The meaning is elusive and the impact is muted.

Other attempts are somewhat more successful, as when Richard II's contemplative musings on his responsibilities as ruler give way to "If I Ruled the World" from Pickwick; or when Petruchio's admonitions to his new bride, Katherine, are contrasted against the quieter and more gently ironic "How to Handle a Woman" Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe conceived for Camelot (though Cariou could probably easily dispense with the funny voice in the latter), in defiance of the blindingly obvious choice of seguing into a selection from its famous musical adaptation, Kiss Me, Kate. Another surprise: Except for a few lines of "I Had a Love," there's no West Side Story here. Again, Cariou, Kleinbort, and Janas wanted to keep you—and, you suspect, themselves—on their toes.

But even in the best of moments, little of this seems necessary or insightful. You won't learn much about Cariou or Shakespeare that you didn't already know, unless it matters to you why he ended up playing King Lear rather than Macbeth after completing his contract as Frederik Egerman in the original A Little Night Music. And though Cariou remains a powerful and creative actor, his singing voice is far from its earlier glory, and not ideally suited to everything he sings. He never sounds bad, but he does sound weak—a sign that he and his collaborators should have done a bit more to tailor the songs to his present vocal abilities. This presents no such liability on the monologues, which are brimming with musicality, variety, and excitement, but it's odd to attend a Len Cariou concert and look forward to the soliloquies.

Even so, Cariou is so gifted and so likable that you're willing to forgive him and the show a lot, and even when they don't soar, they also don't implode. There's something engrossing about witnessing a performer of Cariou's caliber letting loose with Jaques's "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It, and instinctively meditating to the half-century of success and failure behind it. Or, through a number from the one-night Lerner-Strouse flop Dance a Little Closer, observe a smidgen of history you missed the first time around. When individual pieces are this good, or full of this much potential, you can't help wanting them to ultimately come together into a brighter picture.

More attention to detail all the way around would help. Perhaps most urgent, either a rearranging of the songs or stronger connecting tissue between them: At the performance I attended, Cariou lost his place within the "narrative" and needed prompting from Janas several times to get back on track; this could be incident to age (Cariou is 76), but considering the overflowing-stream-of-consciousness arrangement of the scenes, I'm not sure a 21-year-old would have fared better. Though Janas is an expert and energetic accompanist, the awkwardness of his few spoken and sung lines are an uncomfortable reminder that not just anyone should attempt such chores. (Finding an actual costar or supporting backup for Cariou would be a much better idea.) And though set designer Josh Iacovelli has devised a charming backstage-meets-library set, it's largely ignored, even though it could easily play a bigger role in fusing the theatrical worlds.

That was the aim of the evening, after all, so why not play it up at every opportunity? As it stands, only once do all the pieces come together, if in a prefab way: the finale. It's nothing more than Cole Porter's playfully ingratiating "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," but through its bawdy appropriation of its title subject and Cariou's delight in milking it for every spare drop of fun, 400 years melt away and you're experiencing first-hand what the present and past have to offer each other. Whether to woo women or audiences, we'll be quoting him now and for generations to come, though it's only when the word and the message are truly in sync, which they too often are not in Broadway & the Bard, that they'll really all kowtow.

Broadway & the Bard
Through March 6
Lion Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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