Theater review: 'Robin and the 7 Hoods' at the Old Globe
San Diego -- Something slightly felonious is happening with the goldmine of tunes by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, the songwriting team that helped revitalize Frank Sinatra’s hip factor in the 1960s. The new musical “Robin and the 7 Hoods” has ransacked one of the great catalogs from the ring-a-ding era for a show that can’t figure out if it wants to be an honest-to-goodness book musical or a jukebox jamboree.
Right now the offering is a cross between a “Guys and Dolls” rip-off and a “Mamma Mia!”-style smorgasbord of hits. Yet the songs are so criminally entertaining—such a step up in originality and surprise from anything written for today’s cheesy Broadway—that Friday’s opening night audience at the Old Globe didn’t seem to mind the shoddy construction of this Robin Hood revamp.
To make an insanely complicated story short: Chicago mobsters wage war over nightclub turf. A crusading TV anchorwoman named Marian (Kelly Sullivan) falls hard for Robbo (Eric Schneider), one of the embattled club owners, who’s ripe for romantic redemption. The names derive from the old English legend, but the stealing from the rich to give to the poor business is mostly a con that would require a flow chart to explain. (Trust me: You really don’t want to know.)
There’s obviously no competing with the star power of the 1964 Rat Pack film with Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (The title and some of the character names are the same, but the story has been overhauled and several Sinatra standards have been shoehorned in along with additional songs.) The Old Globe’s amiable ensemble is more confident in handling the musical numbers than the confused period patter (updated from the Prohibition days to the early ’60s). But the performers shouldn’t have to take the rap for the new work’s shortfall.
Even if Harry Connick Jr. (rumored to be at the top of the producers’ wish list) were to anchor a future Broadway run, a new generation deserves the opportunity of encountering Cahn and Van Heusen’s streetwise genius in a sleeker vehicle. The paint job on this one is certainly snazzy, but the engineering reveals major flaws—the biggest being the attempt to thread disparate songs into a consistent narrative. Why bog the celebration down with a cumbersome yarn when an artful revue would more or less do the trick?
The problem can’t be laid entirely at the feet of book-writer Rupert Holmes (“Curtains”), who has done his best to come up with a structure that can contain all of the loosely fitting parts. Yes, the majority of laugh lines are groaners and the plot points are designed around the songs rather than the other way around. But the job is an impossible one, demonstrating yet again that musical theater can’t be ordered up in the same top-down, marketing-focused way that Detroit manufactures cars.
The production, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“The Drowsy Chaperone”), rouses the crowd with its tap-dancing and general swing. At times, it even appears that Nicholaw wouldn’t mind junking the whole convoluted tale and moving in a direction similar to “Come Fly Away,” the Twyla Tharp ode to Sinatra currently on Broadway. Interestingly, when the caper’s contrivances are at their most strained, even the choreography gets clichéd, with go-go arm jive suggesting an impromptu limbo at a Vegas disco.
The opening number, “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is),” sets the peppy tone if not the place. Scenic designer Robert Brill doesn’t bother much about the Windy City—the location is first and foremost a stage, another hint that production would rather be a spectacular than a musical saga. But the upside is that lighting designer Kenneth Posner has room to enhance the visuals with colorful effects.
It’s not clear why Holmes has transported the action to the now ubiquitous “Mad Men” era, but the slim cut suits (the dashing contribution of costume designer Gregg Barnes) look great on Robbo and his gangster friends and foes. The titular “hoods” are mostly undifferentiated types (the seven dwarfs would seem to have Chekhovian contours by comparison), but they handsomely fill the show’s superficial bill.
Schneider’s no Sinatra but he has a driving voice and a sneaky urban appeal. Sullivan’s commanding singing compensates for her sometimes underwhelming acting. The chemistry between the two is lukewarm, but they deliver sufficient heat in their joint numbers.
Of the supporting cast, Amy Spanger is the musical standout as the woman intent on marrying Robbo’s best buddy, Little John (Will Chase). Rick Holmes makes only a wan impression as P.J. Sullivan, Robbo’s supposedly fearsome rival. But Adam Heller, who plays corrupt Lieutenant Nottingham, steals the spotlight from everyone during his “High Hopes” reverie with Robbo.
As an entertainment, “Robin and the 7 Hoods” succeeds only if you agree to accept it on its own harebrained terms. The film had the advantage of Ol’ Blue Eyes, Dino and Sammy, to get viewers over the hump of the screenplay. Here, Cahn and Van Heusen’s music is the secret weapon. That’s some pretty powerful artillery, but the fight shouldn’t have to be so onerous.
-- Charles McNulty
"Robin and the 7 Hoods," The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays,8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends August 29. $68 to $89. (619) 234-5623 or www.theoldglobe.org Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Photos: Top: Eric Schneider and Kelly Sullivan. Bottom: Adam Heller and Schneider. Credit: Craig Schwartz / The Old Globe