Eric Millegan and Estelle Parsons in Harold & Maude: The Musical(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
Eric Millegan and Estelle Parsons in Harold & Maude: The Musical
(Photo © Jerry Dalia)
The first sign of trouble with the musical adaptation of Harold & Maude comes immediately after the amusing opening scene wherein the fresh-faced eponymous lad puts his head through a thick noose that drops from the flies and kicks away the chair on which he's standing. The problem isn't so much what happens next as what doesn't happen: Harold (Eric Millegan) is swinging but not singing. In a song-and-dance treatment of the 1971 cult movie about a May-December love affair, you'd think that the youth's simulated hanging would be the ideal spot to float a ditty that introduces an adolescent in love with the idea of suicide but unable to follow through.

But lyricist-librettist Tom Jones and composer Joseph Thalken don't go there. Instead, Harold swings slowly in the wind while his mother, Mrs. Chasen (Donna English), bursts into the room (meager Rob Odorisio sets with projections by Ruppert Bohle) and wails a number about how selfish Harold is. The supposed irony is that she's more wrapped up in herself than concerned about her addled offspring. Harold, though ostensibly more important to the piece, doesn't stir the air with song until much later, when he unleashes "Where Do You Go?" -- which strongly recalls the Jones-Harvey Schmidt song "Much More" from The Fantasticks. Maybe Jones and Thalken did try a song or three for Harold to deliver while noosed up but couldn't get anything to work. If so, they should have kept on trying.

That's how it goes with Harold & Maude: The Musical. Throughout the proceedings, the wrong song is sung at the wrong time, or the same song is sung in various modes. Septuagenarian Maude (Estelle Parsons), who arrives in her last year and in Miguel Angel Huidor's colorful rags to instruct Harold about the joys of living, teaches that lesson whenever she opens her mouth -- at least three times to lilting but eventually repetitive Thalken waltzes. In both "Song in My Pocket" and "The Chance to Sing," she plugs singing as therapeutic, and more than once she promotes the benefits of dance.

What's to be said for a musical about an unusual romance that includes only one half of a love song (Harold's section of "Maude's Waltz") and a tepid rip-off ("Calm") of "I'm Calm" from Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum? What's to be recommended in a show that has a psychiatrist called Dr. Sigmoid (of the sigmoidoscopy Sigmoids?) chanting material, in a number titled "Flush It Out," that reaches for laughs by stressing letters four through seven in the song's title? And what can one make of the fact that the Harold & Maude audience responds most favorably to a second-act sequence featuring a character who comes from nowhere -- or, perhaps, from a yet-to-be-written show? "Montezuma" is performed by Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays all the weird young women to whom desperate Mrs. Chasen introduces Harold. As a girl named Sunshine, Champlin -- who had the Carol Burnett role in Hollywood Arms and is conversant with slapstick comedy -- expends much effort throughout a sort of Maria Montez send-up.

There is a theory of musical comedy writing that posits the necessity of at least one life-force figure to thrust the plot ever forward. As written by scenarist Colin Higgins and as sashayed by Ruth Gordon, there was a tremendous life-force in the film Harold and Maude. But although Maude talks the talk in the musical, she doesn't walk the walk. (More of the literal walk-the-walking later.) After Harold and Maude meet cute -- morbidly cute, but cute -- at a funeral, she takes him under her tutelage, commandeers him for a wild ride in an appropriated truck, and then invites him into her treehouse. But the old woman's attempts to rouse the young man from his stupor are desultory, as are Harold's endeavors to shock people with his numerous attempts at snuffing himself. The resulting paradox is that a musical about a life force is utterly lifeless.

Estelle Parsons, direct from her stunning performance in Horton Foote's The Day Emily Married, would seem a savvy choice to play Maude. But she isn't Ruth Gordon, although she does throw in a few Gordon wiggles and a couple of Gordon inflections. What Gordon had that Parsons doesn't is the opposition-be-damned attitude needed to enliven Maude; Parsons' drive is milder, sweeter. Eric Millegan, a 30-year-old actor-singer who looks half his age, is another smart casting choice but is undermined by the tedious nature of the role and the absence of a single song with which to make his mark. That he and Parsons fail to supply romantic magic, and that director Mark S. Hoebee can't help them achieve it, is a major detriment to the show. Donna English is okay in her one-note role, while the aforementioned Champlin and Danny Burstein are capable workhorses in many subordinate roles.

Fans of the movie may like seeing it brought to the stage, no matter what. On the other hand, they may view this inadequate work as sacrilegious. (A previous stage version of Harold and Maude, adapted by Higgins and with some incidental music and lyrics by David Amram, lasted only four performances on Broadway in 1980.) They won't go out humming the songs or even the scenery for a chamber musical stranded in the middle of a stage too big for it, and they are unlikely to be impressed by John Paul Szczepanski's lighting or Randy Hanson's sound design. Better to rent the video.