Beautiful Music

"I see myself writing in the tradition of Shakespeare and Moliere," playwright Don Evans once told The New York Times. "I'm very much aware I come from a street tradition, but my work came about because of writers I love, like William Shakespeare."

I'm pleased to report that one of Evans' newest scripts, A Love Song For Miss Lydia, currently entering its final weekend at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre, favors the small beauties of the street over majestic, Shavian-Shakespearean pronouncements about the human condition. The influence of those authors has been more apparent in the techniques used by the Philadelphia-born, New Jersey-based activist and professor than the subjects he tackles. Two of his other comedies previously produced by Jubilee Theatre feature direct addresses to audiences, soliloquy-like monologues and authorial intrusions to remind us how much life and theater have in common--The Trials and Tribulations of Staggerlee Booker T. Brown, a Faustian riff recounted in a bar about a minister who sells his soul to Big Red for another chance at youthful debauchery; and One Monkey Don't Stop No Show, a more realistic play about a nightclub owner seduced by the wily young woman in his care.

A Love Song For Miss Lydia is a headfirst plunge into naturalism, and I hope it represents an evolution for Mr. Evans rather than a pause. Jubilee artistic director Rudy Eastman takes this modest, even humble script and turns those adjectives to his advantage, pitching the performances of the actors to a low flow of ache and joy. There's a polished glow to Eastman's production--even reflected in Roger Ross' set, full of brass-framed old photos and worn curios--a kind of confidence that comes from the knowledge that the decisions made by the characters here won't spin the world on its axis. They're just surviving day to day, and in the process of that struggle, searching in corners for a little solace.

Mary Catherine Keaton-Jordan, younger than her role by many years but still heartbreakingly convincing, gracefully plays Lydia Evans, a septuagenarian widow without family who presides over her empty but proudly "Christian" home in Philadelphia. The hushed loneliness of her routine life is constantly being intruded upon by her neighbor Sarah (Karen Petite, doing an African-American variation on Thelma Ritter) and handyman Estell (F. Carl Brown), out of concern for her welfare and a desire to run her life. The dynamics of this tiny arrangement are upset when Miss Lydia proves too polite to refuse Mahlon (Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr., pitch-perfect and toned down from his previous role in Ceremonies in Dark Old Men), an aggressive flatterer who answers her ad for a boarder. A plan is hatched to open a candy store using Lydia's and Mahlon's money, and suddenly Mrs. Evans feels hopeful, useful, even desirable. But Sarah, convinced the interloper is a snake, throws herself like a wrench into the wheels of their promised future together.

It's a tribute to playwright Don Evans and the actors that, even though we see what's coming by intermission, A Love Song For Miss Lydia feels spontaneous as it travels into this impasse in the title character's life. Jubilee's exquisite staging reminds you how difficult it is to skirt cloying nostalgia and successfully write and perform a show about little people rather than big ideas, for stage artists to concern themselves with a story full of multilayered personal conflicts instead of experimentation. It also drives home how uncommonly satisfying such an accomplishment is in a contemporary theatrical climate obsessed with subverting forms and traditions.

"I may not be the most famous songwriter in the world," said David Friedman to the cabaret writer for the webzine Talkin' Broadway. "But when you hear a David Friedman song, you know it."

He worked as a Broadway conductor and a vocal arranger for Disney films while cementing his reputation as a New York cabaret king by writing and producing the albums of the late great crooner Nancy LaMott. The Friedman songs made famous by her and other piano-bar cult stars have never before been assembled in one revue; judging from As Long As I Can Sing, the world premiere from Lyric Stage, our resident purveyor of world-premiere musical theater, there's a reason why. After sitting through two acts and 26 numbers written by the man and a few collaborators, sung by a talented if somewhat underdirected quintet, I feel confident that I will know a David Friedman song when I hear it: Somnambulant melodies and warmed-over serenade lyrics are my red flags.

It's not all the songwriter's fault. Steven Jones, Lyric Stage founding producer and creator of As Long As I Can Sing, has made the disastrous miscalculation of assembling an almost two-hour show that's 90 percent ballads. If you were to feed me 100 straight minutes composed of sentimental odes to love and loss by any of the lauded living show tune composers--Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown or even a consummate rip-off artist like Randy Newman--my brain would hemorrhage from passion fever. Except there'd be one important difference with those folks--most of their work exists within narratives, with each song containing a built-in character context that would help distinguish the sentiments at least a little.

Not so the tunes of Friedman, which are written--if one chooses to be charitable--with a certain deliberate blandness so that stylists like LaMott or Midler in her bathhouse days and stage-marquee names such as Betty Buckley and Patti Lupone can deliver the songs with singer placed squarely in the foreground. Lyrics and melodies like Friedman's work best when they serve as mere cues for a beloved diva to not so much sing as give a vocal performance--to act with her lungs and chords. For As Long As I Can Sing, Jones has assembled six performers--Julie Johnson, Steve Barcus, Amy Stevenson, Dan Carne and Dara Whitehead, plus musical director-pianist Mark Mullino--who are technically proficient but neither quirky nor bravura. There is some dazzle on display here--Whitehead has an upper register that's pure and shimmering as a wind chime; Johnson struts with a cowgirl earthiness (that kicks in too late, unfortunately)--but most of the time, everyone strikes the same pose: arms spread, hands open, head tilted heavenward, eyes blurry beacons of sincerity as they draw out the notes. As the Sunday matinee progressed, "draw out" became a descriptive phrase--the successive songs sounded so much alike, it seemed like one very cheesy ballad was being reprised relentlessly for the purpose of wearing down captors during a tense standoff.

Friedman's love songs don't bear close scrutiny. The titles--"You're Already There," "I'll Be Here With You," "Listen to My Heart," "Let Me Be the Music," "I Can Hold You"--are perfect précis of their interchangeable contents: Each is about nothing more than what it's called. One emblematic number, "Only My Pillow Knows" (co-written with Kathie Lee Gifford), reflects the thoughtlessness with which these tunes were written--Friedman and Gifford squeezed images of rivers, sparrows, willows and pillows into one chorus. Among such unwieldy compositions, there's a sprinkling of "character" songs here, most of them assumed by the game Amy Stevenson. Since I've never been confused with an anorexic, I must confess a bias against the way Steven Jones uses Stevenson, a big woman. She's rarely allowed to rise above lyrics that are asexual ("My Simple Christmas Wish," "I'm Not My Mother") or that remind ticket buyers of her weight ("If I Were Pretty," "He Comes Home Tired"). The latter, at least, allows her to appreciate a husband who appreciates her despite her "tight dress." But Stevenson's sole path through the meadows of love with "He Comes Home Tired" is trampled by Steve Barcus romping through a comical "If You Love Me Please Don't Feed Me," a follow-up song from the husband's viewpoint. Fellow cast member Dara Whitehead is lovely but just a flower stalk of a girl; why doesn't Friedman pen tunes like "I Need Carbs" for singers of her size?

Personal agendas aside, As Long As I Can Sing is way too much undifferentiated yearning and conventional comic "wisdom" to be staged inside an echo-filled hall like Irving Arts Center's Dupree Theater. Much as I challenge the featured songwriter's craftsmanship, I just don't think Lyric Stage has done him right. The ingredients essential to making Friedman's oeuvre digestible--small space, cigarette smoke, bitter banter between a drag queen and her pianist, and lots of alcohol--have been cruelly denied us.

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Jimmy Fowler