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A CurtainUp Review

I should preface this review by confessing that I'm less than enthralled with the book-less role model revues that seem to have inspired Dream. Yet, having put together a 600-page dictionary of metaphors, I'm a sucker for Johnny Mercer's lyrics which are rich in imagery and wit. Therefore I was prepared to love the new Mercer revue even though it admittedly didn't promise so much as a wisp of a story line. What was there not to love with a menu that promised:
  • 42 hit songs from Mercer's large and irresistible canon
  • the feel of the good old days via the indomitable Margaret Whiting --her career has been closely
  • associated with Mercer's songs and her father Richard Whiting was one of his first collaborators
  • a 90's music sensibility courtesy of John Pizzarelli whose Trio I've enjoyed at several Tanglewood (in the Berkshires) Jazz Festivals
  • A visual feast of the accompanying dances by the Tony-winning director and choreographer Wayne Cilento and a large cast of high-energy singers and dancers

  • Since I'm using past tense adjectives you're probably braced for me to zap the show. Wrong. The Mercer lyrics are as wonderful as ever. Whiting and Pizzarelli deliver the Mercer mood. Whiting's voice isn't what it used to be, but she will forever be a class act and, given a more significant and integrated role than she has in this show, she could still sizzle. Pizzarelli is of course a guitar man, but his singing has the natural and relaxed quality that suits Mercer's lyrics. He and his trio's "Jeepers Creepers" and Margaret and John's "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" are pure Mercer.

    Cilento and the company sing and dance with energy and verve. Jonathan Dokuchitz acquits himself very well as the featured male singer. Brooks Ashmanskas and Jessica Molaskey perform admirably in the comic and singing department. Darcie Roberts is another shining star in the talented company.

    The bottom line is that I found enough to like in the show to have a good time, but there were too many flaws for a full-throttled thumbs up. Since I've made no mention of the top-billed dreamer, Lesley Ann Warren, you shouldn't be too surprised to find her at the top of my list of the show's flaws. While she's a long way from being considered "old" and has a figure that could grace the cover of any health club brochure, she's passed the days when numbers like "Pardon My Southern Accent" are appropriate. Worse still, her delivery is one-note, one-expression, overly mannered. The performance actually detracts from some of Mercer's most memorable numbers like "Moon River."

    The second major flaw is the show's too-much-of-a-good-thing lack of cohesiveness As I said at the beginning, I was prepared to sit back and enjoy this generous and generously produced sampler of Mercer songs, but two and a half hours proved a bit wearying. Furthermore, the chronological arrangement of the lyricist's work is a poor substitute for the non-existent libretto and does not always serve the material well. Part of this is because Mercer worked in so many styles and with so many composers, that you don't have a clearly identifiable sound (as with Kander and Ebb or Stoller and Lieber). A revue we saw last summer at the sadly defunct Sharon Playhouse (Dreamland) was a tribute to Harold Arlen who also collaborated with many lyricists (including Mercer). However, that show which featured sets by Leonard Foglia of Master Class fame was smaller and more intimate and had a nice book to give the diverse songs a sense of unity. (Dreamland was slated for an Off-Broadway appearance but I guess the shortage of theaters put the kabosh on that).

    An alternative to a Mercer biography or a story line à la the above mentioned show, would have been to cut some numbers--Mercer wrote 1000 songs, so if you can narrow that down to 42 you can give up some others--and give Margaret Whiting a bigger and more comfortable role as a sort of M.C. providing an anecdote here and there to place these songs into a more meaningful context. Such judicious cutting might also get rid of some of the less successful sets, especially the garishly over-sized Oscars from the Hollywood segment.

    With all the musicals that are headed for Broadway this month, this costly show may have a tough time surviving through the summer tourist season. On the other hand, Mercer fans specifically and nostalgia buffs in general, may just keep it going for a respectable run. If you go and the powers that be don't trim the show, don't even think about walking out at intermission! The finale is everything a finale should be--in terms of the fabulous tap routine and set. At the matinee I attended three little girls sitting in front of me went a tad limp during the last half hour of the show (with the youngest resting her head on her mom's shoulder) but the minute the terrific dance routine leading into the "On the Acheson, Topeka and the Sante Fe " finale began, all three literally popped up in their seats and started to gyrate with the rhythm of the number.

    For more background on Johnny Mercer check out Our previously posted article about Johnny Mercer

    DREAM based on the lyrics of Johnny Mercer
    starring Lesley Ann Warren, John Pizzarelli and Margaret Whiting
    Directed by Wayne Cilento
    ¢ Royale, 242 W. 45 St. (212) 239-6200
    Opening date 4/03/97closing 7/06 after 133 performances
    Curtain down: 7/06 after 133 performances

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