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Randy Newman's Faust The Concert

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Randy Newman
Photo by Joan Marcus

Maybe the devil should be in the details rather than sitting at the keyboard? Randy Newman may be an esteemed composer, with a number of major films under his creative belt (he's best known to current audiences for his work with Pixar, particularly on the Toy Story movies), but theatrical writing and theatrical acting are different things entirely. At the confluence of those two things Tuesday night at City Center, where the one-night-only concert of Newman's Faust was presented as part of the Encores! Off-Center series, it was difficult not to remember that hopping between mediums can be as difficult and trying a process as repentance.

From his perch behind the stage-right grand piano, Newman joked early on about whether his adaptation could measure up to those that came before. "Is my Faust the equal of Goethe's?", he wondered aloud, to waves of chuckles from the audience. "Only time will tell." But once he started going, he made it quite clear that he didn't care about that. He was perfectly happy to sing his songs, rarely even standing up, in his customary rumbling, rolling baritone, and deliver his lines with the indifferent abandon one would expect of the Prince of Darkness, who after 4,000 years without a break has seen and done almost everything to almost everyone.

It's a fine joke, and one that appropriately reappears immediately before the intermission break, but by itself it's not sufficient to sustain an evening. Though Faust, which premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, and was seen (and heard on disc) around the country for a decade or so after, is loaded with fine pop tunes that boast Newman's distinctive light-Southern, soft-rock style, dramatically they're sedentary at best and catatonic at worst. When the Devil's opening number is called "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down," and he spends most of the show apparently engaged in a quest to be a Billy Joel opening act rather than convey threat or even basic power, you can tell this isn't a serious attempt at anything beyond a lightly strung-together catalog show.

Newman's libretto, pasted together with clunky narration, could barely stay afloat in director Thomas Kail's production, even staged in a generally appropriate pop-oratorio style (augmented by a few flying clouds and not much more by scenic designer Donyale Werle) and backed by the 15-member Broadway Inspirational Voices choir (led by Michael McElroy, a Broadway leading man of no small distinction). Goethe's 19th-century epic doesn't require such filigree, of course: Widely considered one of the crowning achievements of German literature, and fusing classical religiosity with then-modern poetry, its chronicle of God's favored man, who signs a pact with Mephistopheles for what ends up to be more than merely his immortal soul, it stands on its own, and thrills yet today by virtue of being forceful, honest, and unsparing in its treatment of Heaven, Hell, and everything in between.

Tony Vincent, Isaiah Johnson, Laura Osnes, and Michael Cerveris.
Photo by Joan Marcus

While Newman's version was sticking to the same tale, though updated to the modern day (Henry Faust is an eighth-year sophomore at Notre Dame University), it sufficed well enough. This was mostly due to the cast, with Isaiah Johnson a suavely persuasive God, Tony Vincent a nicely manic Faust, Laura Osnes a gem as his intended love Margaret, and Michael Cerveris and Vonda Shepherd bringing understated threat to their roles as attendants on the Men Upstairs and Downstairs, respectively. With genuine voices, these performers had no trouble plowing through the score, a sprawling mélange of styles counting everything from the expected spiritual and gospel to torch to comic romantic ballad, and beyond.

But the presentation strayed often, its focus too frequently alighting on the conflict between God and the Devil and relegating Faust and Margaret into the background at seemingly every opportunity. If the Devil really needs to sing 11 songs for some reason other than that Newman is playing him, that was never justified, and the second act playing more as a Newman club act than something that was integrated into the plot. Newman's laid-back intensity makes him a compelling concert artist, to be sure, and his "Feels Like Home" duet with Shepherd was undoubtedly for the audience the performance's high point (to literally show-stopping effect). Totally disconnected from the story, however, and saddled with Newman's unpolished line delivery and acting skills, even that didn't land the way it should have.

The result, then, was one that was brightly entertaining, yes, but in spite of itself, and in no way a captivating piece of theatre. And, for better or worse, the series, the venue, and the preshow expectations—from 20 years of Encores! shows to last year's superlative Off-Center concert (and current Broadway shining light, Violet)—command and demand that level of engagement. The show ends with the Devil's paean to Las Vegas, the one place on Earth that best matches his ethos. He's managed to find where he belongs. Based on Tuesday night's showing, Faust hasn't yet been quite that fortunate.

Randy Newman's Faust The Concert
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th avenues.

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