House of Flowers
NY City Center Encores! February 2003
Review by John Kenrick
It's high time that musical theatre buffs stopped pretending that House of Flowers is a lost theatrical gem. After several disastrous productions and this painfully boring Encores concert presentation, it is pretty clear that this musical stinks and it always has.
The plot is so slight that it cannot hope to sustain audience interest for an entire evening. As two neighboring bordellos in the West Indies battle for business, one of the prostitutes falls in love and wishes to marry. Her madam plots to keep her, and fails. That's it folks we're expected to care about this for over two and a half hours? No wonder the show has flopped over and over again.
Harold Arlen, who composed many classic songs in the 1930's and 40's, was creatively burned out by the time he turned out this score in 1954. (In fact, all his 1950's stage scores were terminally weak.) Aside from the shimmering "A Sleepin' Bee," this score has been deservedly forgotten by all but the most rabid showtune lovers. Novelist Truman Capote proved a clumsy lyricist and an even worse librettist no wonder he never worked on another musical. The only things this sub-standard show ever had going for it were the charismatic performances of Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll, which provide the main appeal of the original cast recording. And those performances are almost impossible to match, let alone outshine.
Woe betide anyone trying to fill Pearl Bailey's shoes! Those of us who saw her in action can testify that she made any role entirely her own, with impromptu asides and a disarming personality that distracted audiences from anything else on the stage. No one I know of today has anything like her shameless style. Tonya Pinkins is certainly a gifted performer, but she simply does not register as the scheming Madame Fluer. Her "One Man Ain't Quite Enough" was loud and boisterous, but it was about as funny as an ingrown toenail. It took someone with Bailey's eccentric gifts to breathe life into this number, and this role.
As the love-struck whore, Nikki M. James unwisely chooses (or has been directed) to play the role with overwhelming naiveté and purity of spirit she's in a whorehouse, for gosh sakes, not a convent! And with the number of actors looking for work in New York, it is a mystery to me that someone with such limited vocal gifts got to sing "A Sleepin' Bee" and "I Never Has Seen Snow" her renditions were pleasant but uninspired, drawing only perfunctory applause. Encores audiences have a right to expect far better casting in such a key role.
The delicious Armelia McQueen is wasted as the competing Madame Tango, and the entire ensemble enthusiastically shakes its collective booty to limited effect. The only memorable performance comes from Roscoe Lee Browne as The Houngan, a voodoo priest who gives the young lovers the blessing of the gods for a fee. His all too brief scenes were the unquestioned highlight of the evening, radiant with theatrical magic. When a mostly non-singing character walks off with a musical, you know it's not much of a musical.
I applaud Encores intentions in restoring and reviving House of Flowers. Board member Joanne Woodward provided the hefty funding needed for the research and new orchestrations. With luck, the Encores team can find more worthy scores for their future restoration efforts. As it is, this musical theatre buff will be content to leave House of Flowers "sleepin" on a back shelf permanently.