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Broadway Reviews

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 11, 2011

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever Music by Burton Lane. Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. New Book by Peter Parnell, based on the Original Book by Alan Jay Lerner. Re-conceived & directed by Michael Mayer. Choreographed by Joann M. Hunter. Scenic design by Christine Jones. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Wig & hair design by Tom Watson. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Cast: Harry Connick, Jr., David Turner, Jessie Mueller, Drew Gehling, Sarah Stiles, Paul O'Brien, Heather Ayers, Lori Wilner, Benjamine Eakeley, Alex Ellis, Kendal Hartse, Grasan Kingsberry, Tyler Maynard, Zachary Prince, Alysha Umphress, Philip Hoffman, Sean Allan Krill, Patrick O'Neill, Christianne Tisdale, and Kerry O'Malley.
Theatre: St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Wednesday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm & 7 pm
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with one intermission
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $35 - $302
Tickets: Telecharge

Jessie Mueller and Harry Connick, Jr.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Lovers of classic musicals have been given plenty of good reasons to fear revivals in recent years, from dismantling orchestra to basically nothing to interpolating songs or characters to injecting modern attitudes on material that can't support them. But most disheartening of all must be the stem-to-stern book rewrite, which treats shows as nothing more than interchangeable pieces unpossessing of craft and unworthy of respect. The nadir of this particular genre remains David Henry Hwang's revision of Flower Drum Song into a vulgar spectacle of senselessness, but the mind-blowingly messy new version of On a Clear Day You Can Forever that just opened at the St. James is solidly deserving of second place.

Shows this bad are tragedies whenever they occur, but the loss this time is twofold. The 1965 original by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Burton Lane (music) was no one's idea of a triumph: It was a collection of excellent songs lost amid a ridiculous, scattered story about extrasensory perception and past lives, with a few dashes of super-trendy psychiatry satire thrown in. The show didn't succeed, but it was nonetheless an intelligent-minded effort worthy of admiration for the things it got right. Even diehard purists (like yours truly) would be willing to entertain the idea of a careful rewrite that would sharpen up the dull edges, focus the storytelling, and better communicate the underlying message about the delicate relationship between the heart and the mind.

New librettist Peter Parnell and reconceiver-director Michael Mayer, however, have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they've scrambled together some songs from On a Clear Day with others from Lane and Lerner's 1951 film Royal Wedding, coated them in clichés, and let them flop around like dehydrating fish. It's not just that this has resulted in a terrible evening—though it unquestionably has—but that it risks convincing ticket buyers who may have just wanted to see the above-the-title star, Harry Connick, Jr., that slop like this is somehow first-rate commercial art.

Initially a showcase for a supremely talented leading lady (specifically Barbara Harris), On a Clear Day followed unadventurous student of life Daisy Gamble as she pursued hypnosis from Dr. Mark Bruckner to help her stop smoking and improve the employability of her upwardly mobile husband-to-be, Warren. Mark's efforts to find the roots of her problem led him to conclude that she had lived before: as a free-thinking 19th-century English woman named Melinda Welles. Over the course of Daisy's therapy, Mark becomes more and more enamored—whether with Daisy or Melinda was the question— until only the two women merging into one can make all of them happy.

David Turner and Drew Gehling.
Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Mayer and Parnell have retained the basic idea. The action is now set in 1974, with Mark (Connick) at the center of it, lecturing psychiatrists at a conference about how one case changed his perceptions on love and death. We slip into his mind to relive his experience with Davey Gamble (David Turner), who came to Mark to stop smoking because his boyfriend, Warren (Drew Gehling), didn't like it. Mark discovered in Davey the personality of a Big Band singer from the early 1940s, Melinda Wells, in whom he became interested. So what happened to the straight, middle-aged doctor who fell for a woman who, to the outside world, looked like a young gay man?

This promising idea is vaporized by its follow-through. Harris played both Daisy and Melinda, and could thus believably move between the present and the past worlds while leaving Mark forever confused on the outside. Here Turner does not play Melinda—that task falls to Jessie Mueller, opposite whom Connick plays practically every moment of their romance (with the exception of about two seconds at the end of Act I). With Mark taking part in Melinda's existence, but undertaking no real intimate involvement with Davey, the entire conceit crumbles, and you're left with three characters you don't care about instead of two you do.

Other problems crop up as well. Mark's constantly scheduling new sessions to spend time with Melinda, even as he knows he's ruining Davey's long-term chances with Warren, is creepy, predatory behavior that does not endear him to us. How can Mark interact so much with Melinda and her world, anyway? And if Mark is relating everything, how does he know so much about so many things that happened between Davey, Warren, and their friends when he wasn't around? No detail has been thought out.

This is even more true of the songs. Daisy sang "Hurry! It's Lovely Up Here" to demonstrate her deeper way of thinking and magnificently green thumb; Davey sings it because, well, he's a flower arranger. "Wait ‘Til We're Sixty-Five" was Warren's oppressive promise of Daisy's future happiness at the expense of present contentment; now Davey and Warren sing it to each other, backed up by their friends, with lyrics assigned among them apparently by dart toss. The title song, once Mark's coaxing Daisy into therapy, is now his incomprehensible wrap-up of it. "Come Back to Me" was fine as Mark's anguished wish for the disappeared Daisy to return, but it implodes when he and Warren perform it together while leaping around on furniture, knowing where Davey is but singing lyrics indicating they don't. Most embarrassing of all is "Melinda," in which Mark now sings the lyric "You're a mere dream / Melinda" less than three minutes after learning via dialogue that Melinda actually existed.

The absolute nonsense of the plot has the positive side effects of distracting you from Christine Jones's eye-wringing optical-illusion, TV-test-pattern sets, and from Connick's emotionally vacant turn, which even more than his Sid in The Pajama Game in 2006 presents an absurdist master class in 101 wrong ways to phrase theatrical lyrics. Unfortunately, it also keeps you from fully appreciating the talents of Mueller, who is stuck singing the Royal Wedding songs that slow things to a crawl whenever they occur. (Even Melinda's breakout showstopper, “Ev'ry Night at Seven,” is listless and overwrought.) Turner sings well, but is tangled in Davey's vague writing; he offers no clue as to the source of his personal dissatisfaction with the eye-rollingly perfect Warren (loosely inhabited by Gehling), which beyond bland fear of commitment Parnell never addresses.

At least it's a joy to hear the songs, even if as reorchestrated by Doug Besterman they're a bit on the too-1970s-pop side, and they remind you of what was lost as a result of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever's failure. But Mayer and Parnell haven't unearthed anything new, or even shined new light on what was old; they've merely made a weird, flawed, thought-provoking show into one you're not supposed to think about at all. That's not an improvement. Now, when Davey sings "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?", it's as if he's speaking for the show as a whole, with the answer all too clear: professionalism, polish, and point.

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