Laura Benanti and Lewis Clealein Time and Again(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Laura Benanti and Lewis Cleale
in Time and Again
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Any New Yorker who has read Time and Again, Jack Finney's 1970 vibrant novel of time travel, romance and derring-do, will tell you it's one of the great books about New York City. Outfitted with grainy, atmospheric photographs and drawings of 19th-century Manhattan, this thrilling tale is one of those cult items the mere mention of which propels fans into rapturous roundelays. (I keep my first edition under lock and key.) Finney's work is the kind of piece in which every enthusiast takes proprietary interest.

Therefore, anyone presuming to fiddle around with it does so at his or her peril. For years, Robert Redford had the property under option; the idea ostensibly was that he would make a movie in which he'd appear as Simon Morley, an advertising man who journeys back to 1882 and falls in love with Julia Charbonneau, a young woman of some gumption who helps her aunt run a boarding house at 19 Gramercy Park. For whatever reason, Redford never got around to completing the project, which apparently means others were free to pursue the adaptation rights.

The winners in what may have been quite a sweepstakes turned out to be Jujamcyn creative director-librettest Jack Viertel and composer-lyricist Walter Edgar Kennon, who figured what many Time and Again fans have figured over the last three decades: that the Finney favorite would make a terrific musical. Viertel and Kennon are right; the novel would make a terrific musical. The problem is that they're evidently not the people to do it. Nor do Susan H. Schulman, this production's director, or set designer Derek McLane seem the appropriate accomplices.

While Finney's marvelous folly seems ripe as a July peach to be musicalized, it happens not to be a narrative that offers itself up easily to the stage. Simon Morley's reasons for being sent back in time have to do with a complicated government study about which Finney may have been, well, finicky; it takes much detailed exposition and comes to involve a clandestine plan to alter one or two 1882 events so that a few slick villains don't pull off a scam with heavy-duty repercussions for the future. Finney also contrives that Morley's alternating between the present and the past and his increasing interest in Julia--to the detriment of his affair with 20th-century antique dealer Katherine Mancuso--are also somewhat complex.

So there's no question that adaptors, particularly those thinking to insert songs, are going to have to simplify, simplify, simplify. Even Time and Again purists such as myself would concede as much--particularly in regard to the awful reality that, eventually, people might see the musical who have never cracked the novel or (gasp!) have never even heard of it. But there's no gainsaying that the redactions and rearrangements introduced must be artfully respectful of the spirit, if not every letter, of Finney's beloved original. Otherwise, why bother?

Here, Viertel and Kennon miss the mark. As storytellers, they don't have Finney's knack; although they've retained some of the structure, what they've eliminated and, more disturbingly, what they're added in an attempt to contemporize Finney's story dilutes the plot and cheapens it. The story now goes that Si Morley, who's just masterminded a successful advertising campaign for a perfume called Nostalgia, is having misgivings about his love affair with brittle agency head Kate Mancuso. He seems more attracted to the face in the Nostalgia ad. In that frame of mind, he acquiesces quickly when manipulative scientist E. E. Danziger recruits him for a slip through time's warp to the 1880's.

In one lengthy backward leap, he meets Julia--who, as Danziger had promised Si, not only looks like but is the inspiration for the Nostalgia ad girl. Si falls for her and, having done that, entangles himself in a scheme to expose as a scoundrel Julia's fiance, a cad who calls himself Jake Pickering. While all of this is occurring, Morley also encounters the other occupants of the boarding house over which Julia and Aunt Evie preside. Among this group are a music hall performer named Emily Hogue; her father, Cyrus; and Felix Tiltzer, a young songwriter. With them, Si trots off to a rally to raise money for completion of the Statue of Liberty. He also attends the opening night at Wallack's Theatre of the musicale Tiltzer wrote for himself, Emily, and her Dad to strut their stuff in.

Trouble comes to Si and Julia when they are implicated in a fire Pickering instigates as he is trying to blackmail Edward Carmody, a high-ranking City official. Fleeing the frenzied scene, the lovers wind up in the Statue of Liberty's arm (the one holding the torch), which has been sitting for some time in Madison Park awaiting the rest of the famous sculpture to be paid for and brought over from France. The pair's only escape is into the future--where, as bad luck would have it, Julia and Kate come face to face, and Kate realizes she's lost her fellow to someone with whom she can't compete. How right she is: In order to reach what's meant to be a happy ending, Si goes back to 1882 and announces to the astonished and delighted Julia that he's come for keeps.

In spinning this variation on Finney, Viertel and Kennon have taken out so much of the original--Finney's Simon makes many trips to 1882 and even takes Kate with him on the first jaunt--that the story becomes illogical and difficult to follow. For instance, why does Danziger stress that Si remain in the past for only 24 hours if nothing especially threatening occurs when he stays on beyond the deadline? Most woefully, the adaptation team jettisons Finney's final coup de theatre: Simon makes a dramatic gesture in the past that guarantees the experiment of which he is a crucial ingredient will never take place. In the Viertel-Kennon scheme of things, Si merely turns up in the parlor at 19 Gramercy Park to arrange Emily's betrothal to Felix and his to Julia, thereby proving as the lights fade to black that love conquers all.

Well, all right, it's a musical, wherein "boy-gets-girl-even-if-she's-living-in-another-era" can make for a satisfying conclusion. What Viertel and Kennon may not have noticed is that, by eliminating all but the most essential episodes in Finney's giddy adventure and by turning Kate Mancuso into a hard-edged, 2001 business woman, they have distilled the novel into a retrograde romance. They've bent Time and Again so that now it's about an indecisive chap who turns down a woman living in the present--with all the spiritual emptiness that fact seems to imply to him--in favor of the kind of girl who married dear old dad. Or, in this case, dear old great-granddad.

Cleale and cast in another scene from the show(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Cleale and cast in another scene from the show
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In a very literal sense, Viertel and Kennon have put together a valentine about falling in love with nostalgia. They're declaring, as they stack their case in dialogue and song, that women were more appealing when they weren't running businesses but were, at most, volunteering to raise funds for Lady Liberty. In making this musical comment, they've turned Si, who's a ruminative action figure as Finney sees him, into something of a wuss. Astute students of the musical will immediately realize that this scenario, in which a befuddled romantic jilts his modern-day inamorata for a gal living in bygone times, has already been written. It's called Brigadoon and is a far superior show with lots more dancing. (What little choreography there is in Time and Again has been provided by Rob Ashford.). The subject the Viertel-Kennon team has tackled, about a lad who can't accept today's woman for who she is and instead opts out, could be the kernel of a probing show--but it would probably take Stephen Sondheim and George Furth to write it. Or have they? And is it Company?

Still, Viertel, Kennon, and James Hart (who's credited with having provided "additional story material") might have gotten away with this travesty if their associates had been able to recreate perhaps the most important aspect of Finney's work. The beauty of the book, and what its partisans probably cherish most, is its evocation of a lost New York--the New York of a period when streets were illuminated by gas lamps, when society lived along Fifth Avenue, when 14th Street was the cultural center of things, when the Dakota had only recently been built and presided over the Upper West Side like a giant chess piece standing alone on a vast board.

In a time when the Broadway musical has all but succumbed to the misguided belief that audiences only want to see spectacle, Time and Again is a work that could have benefited from any number of technological gimmicks. (Perhaps some of them were on display at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre, where the show premiered.) Without a budget large enough for such a version, Time and Again certainly calls for more imagination than is concocted by McLane--one of theater's most adept craftsmen, off his form here. A few slides and lighting effects (by Ken Billington) are synecdoches of Old New York and New New York; a few sleek chairs and lamps, and then a few ornate ones, are carried on; a raised platform with a wrought-iron railing is pressed into service as a trolley; some stage smoke curls out from the wings, unatmospherically. And director Schulman doesn't help matters along. To cite only one deficient example: When Si first claps eyes on Julia, there should be some concomitant clap of theatrical thunder. But no; the two just stand there and dully take each other in.

The gaps left by the creative team have the cast dangling. (Costume designer Catherine Zuber, recently fired unfairly from Suessical, is the only one holding up her end.) And what a cast it is. Some of the best and the brightest of today's musical comedy performers are on hand: Lewis Cleale as Si, Laura Benanti as Julia, Christopher Innvar as Jake, Lauren Ward as Emily, Jeff Edgerton as Felix, and Julia Murney as Kate--a part rather like the one she filled only a month or two ago in A Class Act). (Because the striking Murney has sharp features, is she being typecast as shrill and soulless so early in her promising career?) With the exception of Innvar, who seems to think he's actually in an 1882 melodrama and would undoubtedly have twirled his mustaches were they longer, these best and brightest are fine at what they're asked to do, and might have been finer under other circumstances. In the double role of Danziger and the elder Hogue, David McCallum plays with sufficient comic bluster.

Which leaves Kennon's score for consideration. It includes one perky pastiche called "The Marrying Kind" that Tiltzer (is he meant to evoke memories of Harry von Tilzer?) supposedly writes for Emily to introduce on the Wallack Theatre boards. In this jaunty ditty, which anachronistically celebrates independent womanhood, Kennon lines up a series of clever rhymes that include "Yankee," "lanky," and "thank 'ee." A duet in which Kate and Julia ask the musical question "Who Are You Anyway?" is rather pretty and gives the otherwise under-used Murney a chance to share focus. There's nothing particularly wrong with the rest of the score, but nothing much right about it, in a post-Lloyd Webber way.

Curiously, Time and Again almost has a title ditty but doesn't quite. Instead, the song is inexplicably called "Time and Time Again." There is, however, at least one superlative theater song that does include the phrase "time and again." Those three little words begin the verse to the stunning Oscar Hammerstein II-Jerome Kern ballad "All the Things You Are." That's the song I was humming to myself as I left Time and Again, thinking about all the things it could have been but isn't.