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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Harold and Maude : Paper Mill Musical Delight Easily Surpasses Classic Cult Film

Also see Bob's review of The Winning Streak

Eric Millegan and Estelle Parsons
It seems to this initially skeptical observer that the Paper Mill Playhouse has struck gold with Harold and Maude: The Musical, a new work by veteran librettist Tom Jones and his new partner, composer Joseph Thalken.

Harold (Eric Millegan) is a 20-year-old spoiled, but unloved, semi-suicidal rich kid. His favorite activities are attending funerals and staging elaborate false suicide attempts in order to gain the attention of his totally self-absorbed mother.

Maude (Estelle Parsons) is a free-spirited eccentric about one week short of her 80th birthday. Planning suicide on her birthday, she also is a habitué of funerals. However, Maude, unlike the unhappy Harold, loves life. It is just that her time to continue her journey to the next level has arrived.

After meeting at a funeral, this odd couple falls in love as Maude teaches Harold to appreciate the joy of living.

The 1971 original screenplay by Colin Higgins lugubriously placed the emphasis on Harold's repeated staged suicides (actually the film's highlight for many of its fans). It also provided insufficient motivation for Maude, making her planned suicide arbitrary and unsympathetic.

While retaining most of the scenes and characters from the film, librettist Tom Jones has brilliantly excised the weakest characters and scenes. These excisions include several stale and satiric anti-military scenes involving encounters between Harold and his army officer uncle, and an equally stale dig at an advising priest. More notably, Jones has reduced both in number and length Harold's suicide attempts, removing much that was maudlin and unfunny while preserving the best of the humor of these sequences.

(On the other hand, Jones has given Harold's psychiatrist - unnamed in the screenplay - the name Dr. Sigmoid, and has made him anally fixated. Say the title of his song, "Flush It Out," very quickly, and you will hear the usually repressed bad boy side of Jones' humor.)

In a wonderful trade-off, Jones' book and wonderful lyrics to the delightful music of Joseph Thalken winningly amplify the character and philosophy of Maude and allow us to share the joy of Harold's transformation to far greater extent than in the film. These changes should make the Jones-Thalken musical accessible to a wide audience.

Estelle Parsons is a delightful Maude. A natural at projecting a kooky, larger-than-life personality, Parsons adds warmth and softness to her portrayal. While her singing is occasionally unsteady, her voice is pleasing and melodious. Parsons delights us as Maude teaches Harold to make music and dance in her "charm song," "Song in My Pocket."

Eric Millegan has the very difficult role of Harold. He displays a sheepdog look and manner reminiscent of Matthew Broderick. Millegan is good, but he will be better when he loosens up a little and injects a bit of the Broderick slyness into his performance. Millegan most ably carries several lovely ballads as well as the title tune, which is his own "charm song." Although it's a list song ("like Romeo and Juliet, like Pierrot and Pirouette"), you won't be able to resist it.

Donna English is in fine fettle as Mrs. Chasen, Harold's narcissistic mother. Functioning on the edge of hysteria, English's Mrs. Chasen is simultaneously scary and hilarious. Her powerful, clear vocals are exactly on target in her two solos: "Calm" and "Self, Self, Self," in which the pot (Mrs. Chasen) calls the kettle (Harold) black.

Danny Burstein essays about a half dozen roles (including Dr. Sigmoid) with a great deal of zest and panache, contributing greatly to the evening's entertainment.

Possibly best of all in another half dozen roles is the wonderful Donna Lynne Champlin. A running gag has Harold ghoulishly scaring off dates, each played by Champlin, arranged for him by his mother through a dating service. The second date, Sunshine (nee Bertha Krimsky), is an aspiring actress who sings a hilarious number written by her music teacher consisting of snippets of melodies from shows ranging from Oklahoma! to Phantom of the Opera. Not omitting the sons of Sondheim, Sunshine sings, "Is it a dagger I see or am I losing my mind?". Champlin brings down the house and almost stops the show with this number. Perhaps the authors can expand this number; it cries out for more. (And perhaps, the newly adventurous Paper Mill might consider producing the musical Meet John Doe with Champlin recreating the starring role in which she triumphed at NYMF this fall.)

Several melodious ballads with lovely lyrics sung by Estelle Parsons and/or Eric Millegan, cannot be overlooked. Early on, Maude presents her view of life in the melodious "The Cosmic Dance (Round and Round)." While his mother is suffocating him while making out "his" application to the dating service, Harold sings the questing, "Where Do You Go?" Back to back, later in the first act, Maude sings the bright "The Road Less Travelled" and the poetic "Two Sides of a River." Most beautiful and moving of all is the subtly haunting Maude's Waltz.

Director-Choreographer Mark S. Hoebee has directed this complicated and delicate work seamlessly. Going in, you will know that there is a cast of five. During the curtain call, you will be shocked to realize that the cast is not larger. DJ Salisbury is credited as Associate Director/Choreographer. Their work is ably augmented by the lighting design of John Paul Szczepanski.

The costumes are by Miguel Angel Huidor. The 10-piece orchestra is conducted by David Loud. Composer Joseph Thalken has provided the effective arrangements.

The highest praise possible is due to scenic designer Rob Odorisio. Although the stage is too large for this show, the design is beautifully stylized with any number of colorful and whimsical sets which engage and please the eye, present unusual perspectives, and augment mood and story. The scene "at the edge of the forest" embodies all these qualities. A scene in which Harold and Maude elude a police officer uses (I think) film, projections, shifting scenery and curtains to produce a tremendous sense of fast movement over shifting vistas. It is gorgeous.

While this quirky, delicate musical might not be suitable for a large Broadway musical theatre, this production is certainly large enough to play in one of Broadway's smaller houses. While there is still more work that should be done, Jones and Thalken have written a work that, unlike the film on which it is based, will have appeal to mainstream audiences.

Following the retirement of his most estimable partner, composer Harvey Schmidt, it is most gratifying (Fantastick, in fact) to be able to report that Tom Jones, a great mainstay of the American theatre, has found so worthy a new partner as Joseph Thalken.

I wish that I could share the entire lyric to the Jones-Thalken song which constitutes Maude's final message to Harold, but it concludes thusly:

Before the time we must fly away, we have the chance to sing
Don't miss the chance, the chance to sing.

And, dear readers, please don't miss this chance to see Harold and Maude: The Musical at Paper Mill before it flies away on February 6.

Harold and Maude: The Musical continues performances through February 6, 2005 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Eves: Wed. –Sat. 8 PM; Sun. 7:30 PM; Mats Thur. & Sun. 2 PM; Sat.: 2:30 PM; Box Office: 973-376-4343; online

Harold and Maude: The Musical book and lyrics by Tom Jones; music by Joseph Thalken; directed by Mark Hoebee
Cast (in order of appearance)
Harold .......... Eric Millegan
Mrs. Chasen .......... Donna English
Sunshine, etal .......... Donna Lynne Champlin
Dr. Sigmoid, etal .......... Danny Burstein
Maude .......... Estelle Parsons
Musical Numbers:
Act I
Harold's Theme .......... Orchestra
Self, Self, Self .......... Mrs. Chasen
Woe .......... Priest and Mourner
The Cosmic Dance .......... Maude
Where Do You Go? .......... Harold and Mrs. Chasen
Flush It Out! .......... Doctor
The Road Less Traveled .......... Maude
Two Sides of a River .......... Maude
Quartet .......... Nancy, Mrs. Chasen, Doctor and Harold
The Real Thing .......... Harold and Maude
Maude's Waltz .......... Orchestra

Act II
Song in My Pocket .......... Maude and Harold
Pastiche Song/Montezuma .......... Sunshine
Calm .......... Mrs. Chasen
Maude's Waltz .......... Maude
Harold and Maude .......... Harold
The Chance to Sing .......... Maude
Song in My Pocket (Reprise) .......... Harold

Photo: Jerry Dalia

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