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A CurtainUp Review
Red Eye of Love
By Elyse Sommer
Red Eye Of Love, the musical adaptation of Arnold Weinstein's 1961 absurdist comedy, has also had a long and troubled journey to a New York production. Though it's finally made it, this is much more modest and less likely to cause a big rush of enthusiasm. Instead of being staged with a big budget and and at a high profile venue, this Red Eye of Love is playing for a limited run at the intimate DiCapo Theatre on Manhattan's upper East Side under the auspices of Amas Musical Theatre a laboratory for new musicals. The band consists of two grand pianos. A versatile, ensemble plays all the characters besides the trio at the heart of the plot's purposefully ridiculous love triangle.
What's new about this Red Eye. . . is a lot more drastic than Mr. Doyle's paring down of The Visit into a one-act opera. John Wulp, the late Mr. Weinstein's co-librettist and lyricist, has divorced the book from the score by Jan Warner. While I'm not familiar with Warner's music, it was apparently too complex and operatic to transform the play into the show that Mr. Wulp envisioned as a throwback to the post-vaudeville escapist song and dance shows that nevertheless managed to tap into provocative social issues.
While some Amas sponsored musicals have enjoyed long lives, Red Eye . . . is likely to appeal mostly to those who have followed and championed it from its beginnings as a straight play and hoped w for it to sing and dance its way to a New York stage. If the catchy ads that include the turnstiles at the Lexington and 77th Street subway station have piqued your interest, here's my good news/bad news take on the production.
To begin with what could be termed as good news. . .
There's nothing operatic about the songs by new songsmith Sam Davis. If you include reprises there are twenty-one songs. And while Davis still has to contend with some painfully unfunny lyrics, Davis's tunese certainly more suitable to this material than the original composer's.
One of the main reasons for me to look forward to see the show was that Josh Grisetti plays one of the three main characters. Grisetti is a delightful modern day version of popular song and dance man Ray Bolger who's best known as the Wizard of Oz's Woodman. He first charmed me with his perfect comic timing, relaxed singing and and dancing in the York Theater Company's revival of Enter Laughing . That first impression was confirmed every time I've seen him since then and he brings his usual Ray Bolger-ish awkard charm to Red Eye of Love's Wilmer Flange. As that young idealist he wins, loses and wins (well, sort of) the dancer Selma Chargesse (the also appealing Alli Mauzey) from the older, illiterate and wildly successful founder of a department store selling nothing but meat. O. O. Martinas (a less ideally cast Kevin Pariseau).
Though artist Robert Indiana's scenery is sparse, consisting largely of a backdrop evoking his famous LOVE sculpture, David Wilson's projection design does animate it a bit. And, while a small combo would be preferable to that 2-piano band, the pianists play well and never drown out the singing. What's lacking in stage bells and whistles, is offset by the abundant choreography of Laine Sakakura and Alex Sanchez and Martha Bromelmeier's varied and at times amusing costumes.
And here comes the bad news. . .
My good news scenario already points to problems. But the really fatal flaw is that the book as well as the music would have benefited from a make-over. What was once unique about the play's ability to entertain while commenting on greed versus education, the cultural illusions propagated by the movies and the painful experiences of Depressions and wars, has lost its sharp edge. The wisecracking lyrics and comic dances are now less a case of absurdist wit than just plain silliness — especially given the lengthy lyrics about the joys of "fondling fillets" and having one's "heart go bump at the sight of rump."
I like a good hamburger as well as any carnivore. But this production's best moments involve the more moving less jokey second act number in which the Depression impoverished chorus sings "What Happened?" along with an evocatively lit and moody war scene. Unfortunately, the usually able director Ted Sperling has allowed the "meaty" humor" to dominate and so the "new" Red Eye of Love hasn't transformed Weinstein and Wulp's woe-beset musical into a big Wow.