This new musical comedy unreels in a hectic night and day at and around one of the twentieth century's most memorable playgrounds, the 1940 New York World Fair. The Fair's many come-true wonders brought hope to people still reeling from the Great Depression. For youngsters like Sherman Yellen, who conceived and wrote the lyrics for Say Yes!, it was an unforgettable time of magic innocence. With this show he aims to bring to audiences the sense of fun and optimism that pervaded that memorable Fair and, according to an author's note in the script, "pay homage to the spirit of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges."
(L to R): Mitchell Greenberg, Nicholas Cutro,
Christianne Tisdale, Denny Dillon (Photo: Richard Feldman)
Since Say Yes! is a world premiere and not a musicalization of an existing book, or a staged version of a film, the only pre-opening day hints as to whether Mr. Yellen achieves his aims were a few "channeled through board certified psychics" by way of the show's promoters:
"A triumph!" -- Brooks Atkinson. . ."A terrific new tunesical" --Walter Winchell. . ."Wish I'd written it"--Richard Rogers. . .ditto, Noel Coward and Irving Berlin. . ."This team of nine all star players could easy beat the 1940 Yankees" -- Babe Ruth.
I went to opening night with high hopes of adding my own blurb-able raves. After all, Yellen brings impressive credentials as a writer of books for musicals with a historical twists -- The Rothchilds and, more recently, a trip down memory lane with a Parisian setting, Lucky in the Rain. The pedigree of his colleagues is also solid. But to cut right to the chase, I'll have to say No -- Say Yes! is not the musical answer to sung-through poperas with few if any hummable songs, revues rather than book musicals, or derivative remakes of movies. Sad to say, it disappoints more than it delights.
It all starts off well enough. Even before the show begins, there's a bright curtain that replicates the layout of the original fairgrounds. The opening number "Life" is indeed about the legendary magazine and the magazine frame used to introduce all the characters works well.
Colorful as Kenneth Foy's parade of cutout scenic props are (a train, a car in the Futurama exhibit, other fair goers), they underscore the fact that these characters are less homage to Mr. Yellen's movie models than cartoon copies. To be fair, there are traces of scrappy, right-minded movie heroines like Jean Arthur in Lenore Hirsh (Christiane Tisdale), and of James Stewart in Barnaby Cross (J. Robert Spencer), the tycoon come to the big city to marry a girl who will satisfy the demands of his late father's will so that he can implement his philanthrophic goals. However, the obstacles and misunderstanding delaying the inevitable happy ending for Lenore and Barnaby are lacking in even a moment's surprise. What should be a sophisticated spoof with heart is instead an extended sketch.
The other characters are cut from the same mold. There's
Lenore's wise father Joseph (Mitchell Greenberg), who snaps Life-worthy photos when not tending his drugstore. . .her kid brother Hirshy (Nicholas Cutro) who is full of wisdom gained from listening to "The Shadow". . .and her best friend Peaches O'Grady (Denny Dillon) who becomes a World's Fair tour guide. That's the poor folks to set up the class differences that are supposed to give a socio-serious subtext to the fun at the fair surface. The rich folks are dominated by a mommy dearest money-above-all character known only as The Baroness (Linda Thorson). . . her ditzy deb daughter Gloria Host (Meredith Patterson). . . Gloria's blue-blooded but poor boy friend Hurricane Murphy (Timothy Warmer). . . and Helmut Bertelsman (John Deyle, who also doubles as Grover Whalen), whose true identity I won't reveal since it's the one small surprise in the gruel thin plot which relies heavily on the Foy's cardboard costumes (a peanut outfit for Barnaby, a pickle for The Baroness) and Ann Hould-Ward's renderings of the fashions of the times which match Foy's cutouts in cartoonishness.
But enough about the plot and on to the music. I always hesitate to judge a score based on a single listening experience, so I'll simply say that Wally Harper does have a nice way with melody. However, if this is supposed to bring back the kind of book musical with numbers that stuck in your ear as you walked out of the theater and for days afterwards, nothing I heard did that for me. Nor did I see the always ready to cheer opening night BTF regulars do any exit humming.
Sherman Yellen, for all his experience writing books for musicals is not a seasoned lyric writer.
Some of his couplets, like bits of dialogue, are amusing. As often as not, however, they border on inanity in the interest of rhyme. As an example, there's Barnaby's sumup of his dilemma: "So, if I don't marry and start havin' kiddies/everything toes to those bigoted biddies". And the Baroness in the title song in which she persuades Gloria that she must marry Barnaby even though she prefers Hurricane: "Just say yes/so much better than no/No has nothing to wear/No has nowhere to go/No is pain and denial/Yes is always in style".
The single piano that serves as a band has the advantage of not drowning out the cast's voices which with the exception of Christiane Tisdale, J. Robert Spencer and Timothy Warmen would probably be lost even with a 5-piece band. Since this premiere is apparently a trial run to test the show's Broadway potential, at least a small band and considerable doctoring are likely to be part of its future development. As it stands, the only New York venue that might say yes to a booking would be the site specific Queens Theatre in the Park which sits on the grounds of the 1939 World's Fair.
This less than ecstatic take on a show that's full of worthy positive ideas, notwithstanding,
the Berkshire Theatre Festival's producing directory Kate McGuire warrants high praise for going out on a limb to showcase a new musical. This is true of her entire season which, while not impervious to subscription and individual ticket sales, took more than its share of chances on having a few misses instead of all hits. Since the misses were all the result of intelligent choices, they might be deemed to be more noble than ignoble. To be specific:
At the Unicorn we were offered three plays with very limited previous audience exposure, one a premiere, ( Best Kept Secret) its only previous life was in the form of staged readings. While that staged reading history still clung to the BTF production, it nevertheless had enough solidly emotional moments to make one understand Ms. McGuire's decision to give it an airing. At a time when plays with science and technology backgrounds are making big and little splashes in the theatrical world, The Einstein Project (our review) probably did owe its BTF life to the success of the award-winning Copenhagen (our review) -- but whether you liked it as well, less or better than Frayn's big hit, you'd have to agree that it was not a copycat production but a triumph for the original staging we've learned to expect from any production in which Eric Hill is involved.
At the Main Stage,
Eric Hill again lifted what could be considered a safe summer stock revival, Camelot, into the realm of the unique with some unusual production choices (our review). Instead of reviving another "safe" name, Lillian Hellman, via one of her more popular plays, BTF opted for her less known Toys In the Attic (our review). Not content with world premiering a musical, BTF also put on a new play and, imperfect as it was, it was again part of a risk-taking season.
- All in all, Ms. McGuire and her colleagues put together a season that got lots of things right with even the missteps always offering something to make it a worthwhile theatrical outing.
Words by Sherman Yellen
Music by Wally Harper
Directed by Jay Binder
Dances and Musical Staging by Thommie Walsh
Musical Director: Steven Freeman
Cast (in order of appearance): John Deyle(Grover Whalen and later, Helmut Bertelsman), Nicholas Cutro (Hirshy), Mitchell Greenberg (Josef Hirsh), Christiane Tisdale(Lenore Hirsh), Denny Dillon (Peaches O'Grady), Linda Thorson (The Baroness), Meredith Patterson (Gloria Host), Timothy Warmen (Hurricane Murphy), J. Robert Spencer (Barnaby Cross).
Set Design: Kenneth Foy
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Costume Design:Ann Hould-Ward
Sound Design: Denise Eberly
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA, (413) 298-3868
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one15-minute intermission
8/15/2000- 9/02/2000; opening 8/16/2000
For season's schedule go here
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on August 16th performance
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