NY City Center Encores - March 2012
Review by John Kenrick
Encountering an almost forgotten Rodgers and Hammerstein score at a time when Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark is a serious contender for Tony nominations is like discovering an underground spring in a time of crippling drought -- even if the supply in question is a tad less than optimal, it is sweet nectar compared to the brackish stuff we've gotten used to.
Pipe Dream had several huge points in its favor -- specifically, a story taken from John Steinbeck's best-selling novel Sweet Thursday, and a score by the creators of Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I. Consequently, it was one of the most highly anticipated musicals of the 1950s, with such a a massive advance sale that an episode of the hit sitcom I Love Lucy centered on the characters scrambling for tickets.
But despite its pedigree, the show fell prey to a combination of muddled intentions, bad timing and questionable casting. Not only were Rodgers and Hammerstein unlikely choices to dramatize the lives of scruffy bums and warm-hearted whores on Monterey's seedy Cannery Row, but just as production began, Rodgers was diagnosed with cancer -- beginning a battle that would plague him intermittently for the rest of his life. This left his partner to single-handedly face a difficult tryout period, one that was no doubt made all the harder to face by Hammerstein's distaste for the material.
Although a brothel and its inhabitants make up the entire female contingent in the cast, Hammerstein fudged the issue, never making it clear if the girls were actually in the oldest profession or just exceptionally friendly. Compounding all this, Metropolitan Opera diva Helen Traubel was cast as the madam -- and between her insistence on singing in high soprano keys and the libretto refusing to ever quite say what her character was, she came across as more of a matchmaking landlady than a cathouse procuress. The resulting show failed to thrill critics or audiences, and despite a then-respectable run of 246 performances, Pipe Dream was the first R&H collaboration that did not return its investment.
There was a cast recording, but no London production, no film version, and no revivals -- until now. With the active cooperation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization's new Dutch owners, City Center's Encores series gave Pipe Dream a second chance, and thanks to optimal casting, a refreshingly straightforward presentation, and a bit of judicious tweaking, musical theatre lovers found much to enjoy in a show that has languished in the archives for 57 years. While Pipe Dream may not be an outright masterwork, its score is packed with appealing melodies and the sort of carefully crafted, dramatically motivated lyrics that are increasingly rare on Broadway today. And while short on dramatic power, it envelops audiences in a warm glow that musical theatre once relied on but now seems to have forgotten almost entirely. Director Marc Bruni keeps the action clear and smooth -- no small achievement with a show no one has touched in decades.
The impossibly sexy Will Chase is ruggedly appealing as Doc, the marine biologist who finds his relaxed existence rattled by the unexpected appearance of romance. With a glorious baritone voice and solid comic timing, it is downright criminal that Broadway has yet to offer a starring vehicle worthy of his stellar potential. Laura Osnes is delightful as Suzy, the drifter whose unhappy past leaves her clueless about her tender feelings for Doc. A gifted performer, her sensitive rendition made "Ev'rybody's Got a Home But Me" a surprise showstopper. Tom Wopat plays the shiftless but warmhearted Mac with ample macho charm, and Steven Wallem (best known as Thor on Showtime's Nurse Jackie) is ingratiating as the slow witted but loveable Hazel. The always reliable Leslie Uggams imbues madam/landlady Fauna with enough personal warms and solid belt vocals to give Pipe Dream a new, warm and much needed emotional core. One can't help thinking that if someone like Ms. Uggams had been on hand in 1955, this show might have had a happier fate.
FYI, not even Uggams and Osnes can do much with "Suzy is a Good Thing," one of the weakest and most unnecessary numbers that ever snuck by the usually watchful eyes of Rodgers and Hammerstein -- but oh so many other songs sparkle thanks to this cast and the as always brilliant musical direction of Rob Berman. If you have never heard the breezy "Man I Used to Be," the bouncy "Sweet Thursday" or the gorgeous "All At Once You Love Her," the upcoming live cast recording of this concert will be something of a revelation. To those like me who know the original cast recording, this cast's performances will make that recording quite a revelation too.
Will we see more regional and amateur productions of Pipe Dream in the near future? I certainly hope so. Heaven knows that a little more Rodgers and Hammerstein would make our dreary world a happier place. And oh my, I'll take a lesser R&H score over a jukebox musical or Marvel comic book on hydraulics any day.