Harold & Maude: The Musical

Paper Mill Playhouse - Millburn, NJ - January 2005

Review by John Kenrick

Harold & Made at 
        Paper Mill (15341 bytes)Lots of people complain that there aren't enough new intelligent musicals out there. If you want to know why that is, just try putting one together.

While en route to Paper Mill's world premiere production of Harold & Maude: The Musical, a theatre-loving friend and I realized that, for the first time in several years, we were seeing a fully staged musical that neither of us had heard a note of before. Between us, we get so many demo recordings and attend so many workshops that it is rare indeed to encounter something entirely new. Harold & Maude is not just new -- it has some genuine charm. It also has major problems, and like most new musicals will need extensive work before it can live up to its potential.

Many are familiar with the film Harold & Maude, a dark comedy that critics originally panned back in 1972. It is the story of a 20 year old college drop out obsessed with suicide falling in love with a 79 year old woman who's obsession with living leads her to suicide is -- not everyone's cup of tea, but thanks to a sensitive screenplay by Colin Higgins and a sparkling performance by Ruth Gordon, this film eventually became a cult classic.

There is no reason why this offbeat material could not be adapted for the musical stage, but it would take very special treatment to make it work. Its hard to think of more qualified hands than those of Tom Jones, who's lyrics and libretti for The Fantasticks and 110 in the Shade prove him a master at adapting challenging source material. He's made many of the right choices here, trusting the original film and leaving the darker tones intact. With composer Joseph Thalken, he has also crafted several fine musical scenes with real theatrical impact. However, it takes far too long for viewers to emotionally connect with the title characters. Late in the first act, when Harold and Maude announce that they are starting to like each other, the audience cannot help feeling left out.

In the second act, as Maude offers young Harold a decidedly unorthodox music lesson in the appealing "Song in My Pocket," we finally get a direct dose of the charm hiding in both of these lonely souls. Why keep all this bottled up until then? Musicals can allow audiences into a character's very soul with every song. If the authors want to see this show enjoy the life it deserves, they have to make the charms of these two bizarre personalities shine through far earlier. It could be done if Harold and Maude sang about what is in their hearts rather than spouting abstract ideas about "The Road Leas Traveled," etc. And it is never a good sign when characters in a musical spend the better part of the evening on their butts -- too much sitting has a deadening effect on audiences.

No one could fault Mark Hoebee's superb production -- except perhaps for that witless new critic at the NY Times who thinks regurgitating postings from the internet's All That Chat site constitutes original journalistic criticism. Hoebee gives this material a fresh, stylish staging, allowing us to judge the writing on its own terms. Rob Odorisio's sets and Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes strike just the right quirky notes, as does John Paul Szczepanski's lighting. As a rule, I cringe at the use of projections on stage, but Ruppert Bohle caught me off guard with his entertaining designs -- in particular, an ingenious car ride effect. Broadway veteran David Loud's musical direction was flawless, no small accomplishment with new material.

I cannot imagine a finer cast to show this or any new musical off to its best advantage. Donna Lynne Champlin and Danny Burstein handle a series of smaller comic roles with élan -- and Mr. Burstein gets special kudos for contending with a truly unnecessary turn as Harold's scatological psychiatrist. The glorious Donna English, who never fails to delight in any performance at any time, does her best in the extremely unsympathetic role of Harold's self-centered suburban mother. Here is a character in desperate need of deeper material -- why do the authors give us a surface stereotype when they could let us inside to see how this mamma ticks? (It's a short show guys -- bring her to life!)

As the troubled Harold, Eric Millegan delivers the perfect blend of vulnerability and Addams Family macabre, with some fine vocal equipment to boot. Of course, Estelle Parsons is only one of the most radiant talents on the American stage today. She brings Maude to life with every eccentricity in its radiant place, generating warmth and light even in places where the writers have given her little to work with. If these two cannot make material fly, then it is the material that is earthbound.

Three cheers to Paper Mill for having the guts to give this spanking new musical such a first class, flawlessly cast production. Years of serious effort have gone into Harold & Maude: The Musical -- but it will take a bit more time and energy before this promising show qualifies as the lively theatre experience it clearly aspires to be. Those lively souls who are interested in seeing a new stage work in progress will find Paper Mill's ambitious production worth a visit. The unadventurous would be better advised to play it safe and make yet another reservation to see The Lion King.

This production ran through Feb. 6, 2005.

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