Better Off Lost
There is a level of technical sophistication in Theatre Three's current production of the "lost" Stephen Sondheim period musical Saturday Night that makes it seem as though artistic director Jac Alder and his small circle of the T3 faithful have received some special injection of inspiration. The design team of Harland Wright, Mike Garner, and Patty Korbelic have whipped up a small plot of stage that froths with flashing nightclub lights, breezy Brooklyn front porches, and appropriately rustic but spit-shined blue-collar getups for weekend getaways. You can chalk this up to Alder giving the show not just its Southwest premiere, but only the third U.S. professional production since Sondheim revised the book and score for a London debut in 1997. Similarly, the songwriter had a bit of animating pride in his decision to finally take this one for a spin: It was supposed to be his Broadway debut as composer and lyricist in the late 1950s, but when the producer abruptly died during rehearsals, the whole project went to hell.
I'm not sure Saturday Night would have been the auspicious premiere that Sondheim wanted, although this exceedingly slight romp through the vagaries of romance would hardly have affected his extraordinary career one way or the other. (It might even have reached an audience it deserved more, at a time when musicals were the last word in escapist entertainment.) Again, let me assert that everyone at T3 is dressed and lit to achieve a 1920s nostalgia that energizes rather than lulls, and the relaxed authority with which they deliver choreographer Linda Leonard's sweeps and twirls--leaping atop furniture to catch walking canes, spinning till tux tails flutter like wings--had me watch with surprise as several young performers mastered difficult theatrical maneuvers with no apparent effort.
My raves in these departments have as much to do with memories of some shabby T3 musical blockbusters in recent years--like, say, their Woolworth's design for Threepenny Opera--as with the cumulative look and sound of Saturday Night itself. It also speaks to the odd lack of excitement generated by a show full of good-looking men and women who can dance and make you laugh. (The singing here is a bit more uneven, as some of the punier voices get lost in the live jazz stylings of Terry Dobson's orchestra.) True, I'm not known to get giddy over a show tune, but with all the elements I appreciated in Saturday Night, I'm hard-pressed to explain why Alder and his game cast deliver such an unmemorable evening.
"If you're alone on Saturday night, you might as well be dead" is the lyrical refrain of a group of bachelor best friends who hang out on a Flatbush front porch with empty pockets and an itch for female companionship that leads them to bicker among themselves like horny soldiers in a desert camp. The dreamer among these working-class roosters is Gene (Donald Fowler), who dons classy clothes he can't afford and attempts to hustle his way into fine establishments such as The Plaza. When he's denied entrance yet again at the red velvet rope, he meets Helen (Julie Stirman), a kindred spirit who's not above lying to grab a few moments from the cocktail hour. Gene hatches a scam to make a "sure-fire" Wall Street investment with tiny donations from his chums and the stolen car of his cousin, Eugene "The Pinhead," a local tough guy with a violent reputation. Gene's fabrications eventually back him into a corner with the police, but because Sondheim's youthful talents didn't allow him to introduce appropriate doses of danger in the plight of our hero, there's nil suspense here, even considering the unbroken click-click-click of Alder's telegraph-style direction.
Another part of the problem is Fowler, an attractive fellow who moves fluidly, sings adequately, but never quite sheds the aura of a grown man artistically arrested in ingénue mode. Giving much, much more of what he also offered in T3's previous musicals The Boyfriend and Company--ear-to-ear grins flashing perfect ivory choppers, gazes full of wonder and boyish mischief--proves not so much annoying here as homogenizing. He seems cloned from sample DNA of stock musical dreamers. Stirman as Helen, the woman who wants to abandon all that phony luxury and have her man pluck chickens at her daddy's poultry farm, seems earthier, bolder, less likely to blur in front of your eyes. The real standout in the show is platinum-wigged Jamie Pringle as Celeste, the badgering wife of one of Gene's best friends and mother hen to all the boys. She erupts in ear-grating nasal Noo Yawk nagging and coos with Jean Harlow's breathy gentleness, often over the same misdeed done by one or other of the gang, and brings a comic leitmotif of scrappy urban womanhood that keeps Saturday Night from floating away on its own casual adeptness.
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