The Grass Harp and A Family Affair

York Theatre Company, NYC - Jan. 2003

Reviewed by John Kenrick

The Grass Harp

The York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series operates on a refreshingly simple premise. They select worthy but overlooked musicals, gather a Broadway quality cast, and stage them in basic concert form after five short days of rehearsal. The word "Mufti" means that its all done in street clothes, with minimal set pieces, scripts still in hand, and minimal piano accompaniment. The results have been delighting musical theatre buffs since 1994, giving long overdue re-hearings to dozens of beloved flops. They have covered a wide range of shows, including many fine shows inexplicably overlooked by the folks at City Center's Encores. After nine years, the Mufti team has returned to the show they started the whole project with, The Grass Harp. If you have a passion for musical theatre and do not already know this show, it is high time you met up with it.

The Grass Harp is based on an autobiographical comic novel by Truman Capote. It tells the tale of a Southern family torn apart by trivial greed, only to reconcile in the end. Capote eventually adapted it into an unsuccessful stage play, but took no part in the musical adaptation. Composer Claibe Richardson and librettist Kenwald Elmslie had no previous experience writing musicals, but they did such an effective job in capturing the quirky charm of the original story that their show gradually worked its way from Providence Rhode Island to Broadway. But "charming" musicals don't tend to sell many tickets, and despite a cast that included Barbara Cook, Ruth Ford and Karen Morrow, the 1971 production got poor reviews and closed in a week. A cast recording became a collector's item and kept memories of the show alive. Over time The Grass Harp has developed a small but dedicated cult following. There have been occasional productions, including a full revival at the York Theatre Company in 1979, and the York's first-ever Mufti concert in 1994.

The authors made some changes in recent years, so this concert staging includes two songs never heard in New York before – "Brazil" and "Dark Night of My Soul." Sadly, composer Claide Richardson died only days before rehearsals began, so he was not on hand to hear the enthusiastic reception these numbers received. In fact, the entire score remains one of the most oddly enchanting scores of its time, blending a genuine Broadway sound with touches of country, folk and traditional spirituals. It certainly adds immeasurable power to the slight story. It helps that Elmslie's lyrics are in exactly the right spirit, and his libretto is far more effective than I had been led to believe. In fact, this musical version of The Grass Harp is far better than any of the non-musical dramatizations I have seen.

Although the story is rather simple, the score is quite complex – so it is a wonder to hear what the Mufti cast was able to do with a mere 30 hours of rehearsal. Special credit to York's Artistic Director James Morgan and Broadway veteran musical director Jack Lee for pulling all this together. This was a polished showcase, giving every member of the cast a chance to do their best. Jeanne Lehman was endearing as Dollyheart, the spiritually attuned spinster with a secret dropsy cure recipe and a heart of pure gold. Her creamy soprano made the most of many a fine moment, stopping the show with a shimmering rendition of "Chain of Love." Sandy Duncan might seem an unlikely choice to play Verena, the grasping sister who will stop at nothing to steal Dollyheart's recipe – but Duncan set the place afire, reminding everyone present that she is one hell of an actor. She turned "What Do I Do Now" into a searing moment that I will not soon forget, and was equally adept at winning laughs like the pro that she is. What a joy it is to see such a superb talent at work.

The delightful B.J. Crosby had some hilarious moments as Catherine, the Black maid who insists she is actually a Choctaw. With more rehearsal time, show could easily have crafted this into a show stealing performance. Jason Dula was handsome and disarming as Collin, the adopted nephew who faces his first romance as his family collapses around him, and Kim Blair was fine as his love interest. The talented Guy Stroman did not have quite enough time to make the most of the smarmy Dr. Ritz, and Jeff Cyronek as Judge Cool was still gamely finding his way in the role. Barbara Tyrell certainly has the high-powered pipes required to play the evangelistic Babylove, but could not offer the star power needed to make her solo moments sparkle. The entire ensemble acquitted itself well, but it was all too easy to see why this show has proven so problematic. Yes, The Grass Harp is better written than a lot of what we have seen on Broadway in recent years, but it would take a superb cast and production to make the most of such an eccentric set of characters in such a gentle story.

A Family Affair

There's nothing quite like seeing a flop live down to its reputation. A Family Affair is everything a bad 1960's musical should be, with a whole lot of show business talent doing its damnedest to accomplish darn near nothing. But we do get a fun song or two, and the only instance I know of a Broadway musical using "mishpokhe" in a lyric. Of course, if you are not familiar with that word (Yiddish for "extended family"), you might find this story a little difficult to access. The book by playwright brothers James and William Goldman is certainly a professional effort, offering some rich comic moments as two upper middle class Jewish families go to war over who will plan a wedding. But the plot line peters out early on in Act Two, leaving some potentially interesting characters with nowhere to go. And the depiction of both families is so unpleasant that some audience members might take offense. The score, with music by a young John Kander and lyrics by Kander and James Goldman, is mostly forgettable formula material. It puts songs in all the required places, giving each lead their required amount of solo time, but too many of these songs have essentially nothing to say.

The exceptions are two songs that have delighted show buffs on the rather rare cast album for the past forty years – the sweet love song "There's a Room in My House" for the engaged couple, and the raucous showstopper "Harmony" sung by a conniving wedding consultant and her minions as they play the battling families against each other. Not surprisingly, these songs speak right to the emotions that lie hopelessly buried inside this show – young love and the unthinking egos that threaten to tear that love apart. These numbers clearly won the lion's share of applause in this Mufti presentation, but they were not enough to make this anything less than a good performance of a hopeless show.

A flop musical usually has at least one "nervous breakdown," a moment when it is clear that the creative team was utterly lost and settled for throwing something hopeless at the audience. A Family Affair has two breakdowns – an idiotic first act finale and a desperate second act number about "Revenge." Each of these moments is embarrassing to watch, since no cast on earth could help feeling ridiculous performing them. It is particularly disquieting when the cast in question has as much undeniable talent as this one.

Director Richard Sabellico and musical director John Mulcahey had certainly done the best a mere thirty hours of rehearsal could allow. Whatever the material's weaknesses, the performers generously poured themselves out to make the most of it. Blake Hackler and Leslie Kritzer were perfect as the prospective newlyweds – Kritzer in particular scored with a crystalline soprano and a giddy comic tantrum. As the relentless mother of the groom, Alix Korey kept the laughs coming all night long, and David Margulies was so right as her long-harried husband that you would swear the role had been written for him. My heart went out to Richard Ziman, who had the unenviable task of playing the bride's uncle – the role was so specifically tailored for comic Shelley Berman that I seriously doubt that anyone (other than, perhaps, Nathan Lane) could make the part work today. The small but polished ensemble handled several roles each, with standout performances by Broadway musical veterans Eddie Korbich and Nora Mae Lyng.

It is great to get the chance to see A Family Affair on its feet. But it is all too easy to see why the show failed, and why it never really had a hope of succeeding. The York Theatre's artistic director (the witty and discerning James Morgan) introduced the performance by suggesting a parallel with the recent hit movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But everything that charming comedy did right, this musical gets wrong. So maybe John Kander and his current lyricist Fred Ebb should consider a new screen-to-stage adaptation?

All criticisms aside, it is delightful it is to see these almost forgotten shows get such top quality showcases. Here's hoping the York's Musical in Mufti series continues for many years to come!

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