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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


"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

Comments () | Archives (12)

I thought it was absolutely delightful, lovely, funny, touching- a wonderful way to spend an evening or matinee- and a showcase for the talented vocals of Katey Sagal and Adriane Lenox. I would encourage anyone who wants to know more of Randy Newman's music to grab a ticket, a glass of wine, and let the beautiful vocals wash over you and bathe you in an evening that you deserve. Enjoy!

Mr McNulty only begins to hint at the bland nature of a barely coherent through-line that seems to have been intended to weave these songs into the arc of a person's lifetime. Unfortunately, it was evident by the comments at intermission that this was going to be a longer lifetime than folks expected.

The direction by Zaks was too small for the Taper stage and the energy dropped due to sluggish transitions from song to song that were most often little more than "OK, so here's the next number." I wonder if Ryder Bach is truly that marginal a performer or if Zaks told him to use as little of his true talent as possible. Matthew Saldivar, giving it his all, sounded as if most of his songs were key'd just a tad too low for him. His best shined through on "Old Man."

Perhaps Zaks and Jack Viertel should have gone for more of a "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and living in Paris" pace and style. For Randy Newman fans, like myself, his songs are always a fine listen, but this talented cast deserved more than this weak staging.

I saw the show the night before it opened and, as a Randy Newman fan, was pleased -- no, delighted -- with the experience. Having entered the theater expecting a "musical" in the traditional sense, I did have a hard time discerning a narrative arc or story line. Still, it was well worth the price of a ticket to see some amazing actors on the Mark Taper Forum stage singing iconic songs from LA's native son.

In the future, I would also like to attend the performances that McNulty seems to be so often invited too. You know, the shows that will convince me I ought not be proud of non-profit theater. I want to go to the performances where actors magically command my level of enjoyment and subscribers are easily identified by glancing around the audience. Once I attend one of these tall tale performances I will support McNulty's use of the Times as a public forum to give stage direction. I think Jerry Zaks can a learn a thing or two from the both of us.

I will concede that McNulty is no idiot. He does have moments of insight regarding Harps and Angels - But only if you are a purist. Clearly McNulty must be a purist. If this is indeed the case, then the L.A. Times theater page must come along with a disclaimer explaining the authors’ point of view BEFORE we get into the authors’ opinions. This way I will know for a fact that I am going to read an accurate article just like McNulty thought he was going to see a full on musical.

In Short, McNulty is set in his ways. I have a certain respect for that. Although, if the Times continue to send the jaded McNulty to write reviews like this, National treasures such as Randy Newman may slowly die out with him.

Didn't expect much except an intro to this ham on wry
songwriter. It was a great one. No plot (thank god) but
great renditions of musical portraits and smart staging
made this a winner for me. Expect nothing and be
grateful for Newman's tunes. Namaste.

Mediocre conception - not much for the performers to work with. We left at intermission.

No, it wasn't perfect, but it was a hell of a lot better than "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." I would have appreciated more real Newman biography, but I suppose being left with the screen of the "liar" image can be seen to keep one interestingly out of one's comfort zone. I fear Mr. McNulty's review kept away a good number of people who would have enjoyed learning more about Newman's great music.

Only a week or so left for L.A. audiences to see this entertaining and moving show
which is a celebration of Randy Newman's particular genius and a great introduction to this artist for those who are not familiar with his music.
I was not before seeing HARPS AND ANGELS, but now I'm a fan. The six performers --three men and three women--are stellar. Go!

So many people are looking for a "through line" or "narrative arc" and are disappointed. Folks, what a conceit you are missing. Randy Newman has been making social commentary for four decades in image-filled songs that begged to be staged. We just didn't realize it. For how long have all of us listened to Randy construct these images in our heads? And Jack Viertel recognizes what lay there to be revealed (reveled)? Your narrative arc is there in each and every Newman song. Fantastic! After having the scales lifted from my eyes by Mr. Viertel, I asked myself what other song writer would benefit from this technique? Only John Prine came to my mind, but right here and right now, this is it. See it.

What a bore, the cast and production should not put this on again!!!! Save your money this is a real turkey!!!

They won't. The show closed last week!

Yes the show completed its planned run on Dec. 22. A person would have to have been blind, deaf, and stoned not to have enjoyed it.


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