The basic question for Blue Roses is: Why? With a play as perfect as The Glass Menagerie, why mess with it at all? Why did anyone think turning it into a musical would work? Worse yet, why turn it into a bad musical, which is what's playing at Irving's Lyric Stage?
Tennessee Williams' four-character "memory play" is one of the landmark works of American drama. From its Broadway debut in 1945 to its critically lauded 2013 New York revival, which closes this week, The Glass Menagerie holds up as a stunning piece of theatrical literature, solid and pure, with dialogue ringing with poetry, but edited to the bare bones.
The play's narrator, Tom Wingfield, speaking from another time and place, falls back into what he remembers of life with his overbearing Southern belle mother, Amanda, and his disabled sister, Laura. In a series of scenes that float into each other like bits of dreams, the play leads to Tom's flight from home. As Williams sets it up, we understand Tom's feelings of suffocation — he wants to be a writer, see the world, get away — but we also see the dilemma Amanda is trapped in if her son abandons her. She's afraid that, like his absent father, Tom will "fall in love with long distance." She's worried most about how Laura will be cared for in the future if Tom leaves, since Laura's so socially inept she can't even take a typing class without becoming ill. Tom's their sole support, earning a paycheck at a soul-killing job in a shoe factory.
Continues through February 23 at Lyric Stage, Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd., Irving. Call 972-252-2787.
Enter Jim O'Connor, the handsome Gentleman Caller, as the possible savior of Amanda and Laura. Jim's after-dinner scene with the Wingfields in the second half of Glass Menagerie is a beautifully crafted play-within-the-play. (New York Times critic Ben Brantley, in his review of the recent revival, said of Brian J. Smith, the former Dallas actor playing Jim, "... his scene alone with Laura — in which he gives her and himself a lecture on becoming a positive person — may be the best version of it we'll ever see." I saw it in January. Brantley didn't overstate. Smith deserves a Tony nomination, along with his co-stars Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bolger.)
So much of what is delicate, sad and wonderful about The Glass Menagerie has been lost or just trampled to smithereens in Blue Roses, directed hamhandedly at Lyric Stage by Shelley Butler. So far the musical adaptation has been approved by the Tennessee Williams Estate only for regional production. (If it goes any farther, I'll eat a glass unicorn.) Writer-lyricist Mimi Turque doesn't even seem to understand Williams' characters. Her Amanda, played at Lyric by Tony-nominated Broadway actress Sally Mayes, is Mama Rose from Gypsy with a bad Southern accent. Instead of a faded Southern debutante, clinging to recollections of a more graceful way of life back in Mississippi, this Amanda is a shrike. When she's not over-singing dismal lyrics in Blue Roses' soporific score (the 21 tunes by Nancy Ford repeat their melodies like a broken music box), she's screaming at her son and daughter like she's off her meds.
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Tom, played by Duke Anderson in his Lyric debut, isn't a conflicted poet in Blue Roses, merely a clumsy oaf. Gallumphing across the stage as if his shoes were two sizes too small, Anderson opens the show with a jaunty ditty completely at odds with the tone of the original play. This visit to the Wingfields, his Tom sings, smiling between bars, will be "sentimental, unrealistic and everybody sings!" Yes, they do. What sounds like the same song over and over.
As the sister, Laura Lites makes a rather sturdy Laura Wingfield. Lites is a fine singer, but Laura Wingfield shouldn't belt like Fanny Brice. And instead of the pale, wispy girl seen in most productions of the play, musical theater Laura wears heavy eye makeup, long red ringlets and a shiny dress made out of fabric better suited to motel shower curtains. (Costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith are a disaster. Amanda's recycled cotillion gown in the Gentleman Caller scene resembles a sale-rack purple cotton nightgown, nothing like a frilly frock from turn-of-the-century Dixie high society.)
Kyle Cotton, a good singer and a standout as bad boy Jud Fry in Lyric's Oklahoma!, gets short shrift as Gentleman Caller Jim. Turque has abbreviated Jim's intimate scene with Laura, who had a crush on him in high school though he barely remembers her (after her bout of pleurosis, he nicknamed her "Blue Roses"). His big number is, no lie, "Wrigley Gum!," an upbeat, ragtime song about the man who invented chewing gum. Maybe it's a parenthetical partner to "Chew, Chew, Chew," an ode to mastication sung by Amanda in the first act.
In that recent New York production of the play, Smith and Keenan-Bolger did their 35-minute Gentleman Caller scene downstage in the golden glow of a candelabra, their faces reflected in a lake of inky liquid covering the stage of Broadway's Booth Theatre. At Lyric, no such creativity with the design elements has been achieved. Lighting by Julie N. Simmons is a mess, with ill-timed follow spots popping up hither and thither. Scenery by Randel Wright drapes the stage in huge swathes of white fabric, a redundant image in a production shrouded in bad ideas.