Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Harold & Maude

Also see Richard's reviews of Brigadoon and Golda's Balcony

Pamela Myers and Eric Shelley
TheatreWorks continues its 36th season with the West Coast premiere of Tom Jones and Joseph Thalken's Harold & Maude: An Intimate Musical. The intimate and strange relationship between a 17-year-old boy and a 79-year-old octogenarian has seen many changes since it was first workshopped at TheatreWorks one and a half years ago, and the recent Paper Mill Playhouse production. Some are calling this a third version of the musical. It seems to still be a work in progress and could use some tightening up, especially the relationship of Harold and Maude.

Paramount's 1971 quirky film showed a strange relationship between a suicidal teenager and a 79-year-old woman who celebrated life to the fullest. The film had major release problems because of the unusual "romantic relationship." As a result, it was a failure, even with the wonderful chemistry between a moon-faced Bud Cord and the great Ruth Gordon, who was a little on the "nutty" side. Over the years the film developed a cult status and Tom Jones became interested in making it into a musical for the stage.

My contention remains that very few Hollywood movies, especially those written for the screen, make good stage productions. It is even worse when producers attempt to make them into musicals, such as the failed Sweet Smell of Success. Harold and Maude just does not make it on stage. There is little or no chemistry between Eric Shelley as Harold and Pamela Myers as Maude.

In the opening scene, Harold mounts a ladder in a mock suicide attempt to impress his self-centered mother who seems to have come from Planet Nine. She enters the room with a temporary maid who has been hired for a dinner party and spies Harold looking dead, hanging from ceiling. She exclaims in horror, "White socks with brown shoes!" We soon learn that this is one of the boy's practical jokes which always involve the grim reaper. Harold does this all the time until he meets the wild and vivacious Maude, a lover of life.

Maude likes to do weird things, too, like taking up trees from public property and transplanting them to other places. She has no concern about getting into a city park truck without permission and driving the tree to another place. Oh, by the way, she can't even drive. Of course, weird attracts weird and Harold and Maude become a couple. In the film, it was kooky and full of zest in a series of humorous scenes.

Maude's background and the reasons for her zeal for life are not clear, but it is apparent that she is a Holocaust survivor. It is only referred to by Harold asking about the numbers on her wrist and her wistful singing of a lovely song, "The Chance to Sing," to empty picture frames toward the end of the play. The ending is beautifully portrayed as the elderly woman ends her life at age 80. It is not over-the-top sentimental but seems a natural end as we had equated Harold with Death and Maude with Life and now both emotions have changed between them.

Eric Shelley (featured in European tour of Grease) seems a little too old to be playing the baby-faced Harold, portrayed here as a very annoying young man. He seems to be the original boy with "attitude" that is ubiquitous today. However, Shelley is very good in the last scene when he finally finds that life is so much better than death and that he just might make a very good person. He has a very good voice that is clear and ringing. His rendition of "Where Do You Go?" is beautifully sung.

Pamela Myers (Tony nominee for Company and featured in 2001 Broadway revival of Into the Woods) seems a little too young for Maude. She is a cross between Jane Connell and Geraldine Page and she does not have the "joie de vivre" that Ruth Gordon had in the film. The couple perform two upbeat toe-tapping numbers that have a '60s feel about them: "Harold and Maude" and "The Road Less Traveled." The melodies are sprightly and the lyrics full of good cheer.

Director Robert Kelley has assembled a nice cast to support the two leads. Outstanding is Alison Ewing (Last Five Years, Proof, Baby) who plays various dates for Harold. She is particularly hilarious as Sunshine, a wannabe actress who does a wonderful imitation of Lady Macbeth in a death scene, outdoing Harold's predilection for dramatics. She even does a little parody of "Try to Remember" from Tom Jones' The Fantasticks. Her performance is the high spot of the production.

Alice Vienneau (A Little Night Music, Ragtime at TheatreWorks) is excellent as the self centered mother from hell, and she gives a consummate performance when she sings "Mirror, Mirror," like Joan Crawford playing Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, looking into a glassless mirror and putting on makeup in front of the audience. It's a great camp song that might have come from the Snow White in Disneyland. Daniel Marcus (Broadway credits include Urinetown, 1776 and The Pirates of Penzance ) plays various roles from Uncle Victor, to Dr. Sigmoid with a Freud accent, to a pious priest singing counterpoint in Latin with Alice Vienneau. He has a resounding voice when he sings the military style song "Rata-Ta-Tat!" before a large American flag; it's like the scene from the opening of the film Patton.

Harold & Maude: An Intimate Musical plays through August 21 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, Ca. For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit

TheatreWorks' next production will be Lynn Nottage's Award winning Intimate Apparel opening at Mountain View Performing Arts Center of August 24 through September 18.

Photo: David Allen

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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