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Theater review: 'Harps and Angels' at the Mark Taper Forum

November 22, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Harps and angels 1 

Randy Newman fans won’t find much to object to in “Harps and Angels,” the new revue starring semi-hits and arty tunes by L.A.’s favorite songwriting son. (That designation is unavoidable when you live and work here and write the city’s de facto theme song, “I Love L.A.”). But the show, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, is more earthbound than celestial.

This amalgam of songs, covered by an ensemble of six, is theatrical, yet falls short as theater. Perhaps aiming for the winning combination of "Ain't Misbehavin'," the creators of "Harps and Angels" discard the idea of a book in favor of a stream of sensibility. The question is, whose?

Newman’s artistic nature isn’t illuminated all that much. (A recording would probably reveal more.) The production belongs to a theatrical team that's intent on celebrating a singer-composer who is intractably his own man. Nothing wrong with a homage, even an off-kilter one, but a cabaret act would have sufficed. A full-scale production at a major nonprofit theater sets up the expectation that an original musical is headed our way, and one never materializes.

Harps and angels 2Jack Viertel conceived the show, so the fault  can presumably be laid at his feet. The good news is that this isn't a dopey jukebox affair; the bad news is that it isn't much more than a tastefully, if somewhat stiffly, arrayed song cycle. (Exuberantly played, let it be known, by an orchestra led by Michael Roth.)

The direction by Tony-winning veteran Jerry Zaks is respectful of Viertel's decision to rely on Newman's lyrics for whatever plot strands "Harps and Angels" dangles. The musical's content consists of suggested narrative tidbits, some on the state of America, others on romantic heartbreak and endurance. Interspersed are glimpses of the influences that have imprinted themselves on Newman’s soul, particularly those having to do with New Orleans (where he soaked up honky-tonk jazz as a child) and California (the crazy, sun-dappled land where he was born and calls home).
 
Stephan Olson's scenic design deposits all this on a spare stage. The only real color, beyond Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's bold costumes and Brian Gale's mood-setting lighting, comes from Marc I. Rosenthal's unobtrusive travelogue projections, which don't so much illustrate the songs as offer discreet slide show accompaniment.

Warren Carlyle's musical staging conveys the sense that the cast members are pleased to be performing these numbers, and as they clap in our direction, we are exhorted to enjoy these routines as well. By the time “I Love L.A.” arrived at the end of the first act, the Taper audience noticeably loosened up a bit. (Fortunately, none of the subscribers went wild.)

It’s easy to see how Newman's distinctively literate catalog could have led Viertel and his collaborators down this theatrical dead-end. Newman's style has been defined by two main types of songs — vignettes and op-eds. He tells strange little tales and he opines in a similar shaggy-dog fashion. In both modes, he's ironic without being caustic, a fellow traveler in this baffling world, only more observant and irreverent than the majority of us, his eye always landing on a telling ludicrous detail.

All of this is set to music that is characteristically more upbeat than the jagged sentiments and wry second thoughts of the lyrics, a formula that was given an early boost by the surprise popularity of "Short People." This contrast between words and notes can be delightfully dramatic. But a drama isn't concocted by piling one unrelated song on top of another, in the blind hope that Newman’s work will magically cohere into a nearly two-hour theatrical journey. A greatest hits compilation is fine for a concert, but don’t expect actors to embody these numbers with any real conviction. The only person who could pull all this material together is Newman himself, but he’s only a fleeting screen presence, a smiling bystander to this production’s dithering salute.

Adriane Lenox is the standout performer in the company, interpreting “Louisiana 1927” with a bluesy lushness and adding an otherworldly fervor to her parts in “God’s Song" and in the title number, “Harps and Angels.” (She would be worth catching in a solo cabaret of Newman’s work.)

Michael McKean, always a welcome sight onstage, is on hand to represent the middle-aged, self-deprecating Newman. Vocally, he may be just adequate, but he adeptly personifies the witty scrutiny of the songwriter’s male counterparts. 

The nerdy figure cut by Ryder Bach and the ready-for-anything machismo of Matthew Saldivar don’t resonate particularly strongly here. These performers tend to push, but it’s not easy to manufacture “characters” when only tendencies are offered.

The women fare a little better by preserving more mystery. Storm Large, delicately unstrung during “Shame,” and Katey Sagal, astringently amusing in “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” don’t try to fill in what’s not been written. Vague and elliptical, they nonetheless leave a few haunting impressions.
 
The musical numbers in the second act grow in imaginative boldness. But the sketches tend to erase one another, until at the end all that’s left is a reprise of “I Love L.A.” In other words, many in the audience are back to where they started when they entered the theater.  

-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

"Harps and Angels," Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.
Ends Dec. 22. $20 to $80. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Photos: Top: Storm Large, Michael McKean and Katey Sagal. Bottom: Storm Large and Matthew Saldivar. Credit: Craig Schwartz

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