Maurice Hines and Tonya Pinkinsin House of Flowers(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Maurice Hines and Tonya Pinkins
in House of Flowers
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's déjà vu all over again. You're at City Center, waiting for the current Encores! show to begin; you're at the York Theatre for the latest in the "Musicals in Mufti" series; or you're at the 14th Street Y for one of Mel Miller's "Musicals Tonight!" The show you're about to see is a Broadway flop that gained a cult following through its original cast album. As you have done on several similar occasions, you sit there wondering how a musical with such a terrific score could ever have been a Broadway failure. And once again, as the show starts and then proceeds, you find the answer: The book is lousy.

Although this phenomenon is not unusual, it's hard to believe that any show in history has a score and book more unequal in quality than those elements are in House of Flowers. Harold Arlen, one of the great geniuses of American music, here created ravishing melodies, piquant harmonies, and beguiling rhythms in addition to augmenting the work of Truman Capote, already an established novelist and short story writer by that time but a neophyte lyricist. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the wonderful lyrics but in Capote's book. Notes contained in the Columbia Records cast album of the 1954 Broadway production starring Pearl Bailey -- an album long out of print but due for reissue on compact disc in the near future -- tell us that the show concerns a competition between two brothels on a Caribbean island but give no indication of the inane details of the plot. The most ridiculous of these is the decision by Mme. Fleur (the Bailey role) to kidnap the lover of Ottilie, the sweet, virginal young girl for whom Madame has big plans.

Legend has it that Pearl Bailey behaved like a selfish, controlling bitch-diva during the Broadway production -- demanding script rewrites, appropriating songs that were intended for other characters, and getting rid of supporting player Josephine Premice, whom she considered a threat. (Bailey's perception of herself is reflected in the cast album notes, uncredited on the first CD edition: "Insofar as Pearl Bailey is concerned, there is only one thing to do...make her the star. Otherwise, no matter how engaging or talented her cohorts, a show with Pearl Bailey is largely a series of waits before her appearances." Oh, really!) However hateful the woman may have been to her colleagues, she was enormously ingratiating on stage, and this no doubt helped her to downplay the despicable aspects of Mme. Fleur's character.

Unfortunately, Tonya Pinkins is unable to do the same in the Encores! presentation of the show, which began its four-day run last evening. A fabulous performer in her own right (and the winner of a well deserved Tony Award for her role in Jelly's Last Jam), Pinkins sings beautifully and has sex appeal to burn but can't solve the overriding problems of this nonsensical character, whose evil machinations are supposed to be funny but really aren't -- I mean, really aren't.

More successful is Nikki M. James, who plays the Diahann Carroll role of Ottilie (renamed "Violet" by Mme. Fleur) for Encores! James has a wonderfully innocent quality and a lovely voice that serves her in good stead as she delivers two of the score's most transcendently beautiful songs, "A Sleepin' Bee" and "I Never Has Seen Snow." But here's something freaky: Carroll was suffering from laryngitis during the recording of the original cast album and, last evening, James exhibited her own vocal problems. She coughed on stage to clear her throat after her first spoken line, and though things improved greatly thereafter, there were lingering signs of illness. (Perhaps this role has some kind of weird curse on it. Is that you, Miss Bailey?) Less satisfactory is Brandon Victor Dixon as Royal, Ottilie's love interest; Dixon is nice looking and his acting is fine but he isn't quite up to his singing assignments, which include the gorgeous title song.

Roscoe Lee Browne (top) withNikki M James and Brandon Victor Dixonin House of Flowers(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Roscoe Lee Browne (top) with
Nikki M James and Brandon Victor Dixon
in House of Flowers
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
For the most part, the cast members fare better in the musical numbers than in the book scenes; the former seem better rehearsed than the latter, aside from the fact that the musical material itself is so far superior to the dialogue. Maurice Hines tries hard but fails to be amusing as Captain Jonas, though he does contribute some nifty dance steps in Act II. Armelia McQueen is well cast as Mme. Tango (the rival of Mme. Fleur) but has trouble with her songs due to a cavernous register break. Alexandra Foucard, Brenda Braxton, and Stacy Francis are alluring but not especially funny as Pansy, Gladiola, and Tulip. On the plus side, veteran Roscoe Lee Browne is a delight in his turn as the Houngan -- i.e., the local voodoo man.

Kathleen Marshall's choreography is rousing, and it doesn't hurt that it's performed by some of the hottest dancers in New York. But Marshall's previous directorial efforts have been spotty, so it might have been a good idea to hire a more experienced and talented director to handle the hot potato that is House of Flowers. This staged concert is fully costumed and features more elaborate set pieces than the usual Encores! presentation, including verandas stage left and stage right. John Lee Beatty and Toni-Leslie James are credited as scenic and costume consultants, respectively.

Ted Royal's original orchestrations for House of Flowers were lost some years ago (click here to read a TheaterMania article on this infuriating subject) and Jonathan Tunick has done a brilliant job of recreating them while adding his own masterful touches. Aside from a few questionable trumpet notes in the overture, the orchestra plays well under guest musical director David Chase. (Rob Fisher is resident musical director of the indispensable Encores! series.)

In closing, it should be noted that the book of the show is not being performed by Encores! exactly as written; Kirsten Childs is credited with the "concert adaptation." One might argue, therefore, that it's unfair to judge the book on the basis of this performance, but I tend to doubt that Childs made any wholesale changes. The original script was revised by Charles Busch (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Shanghai Moon, etc.) for a version of the musical that played in Westbury, Long Island and Valley Forge, Pennsylvania some years ago, starring Patti LaBelle and directed by Geoffrey Holder. (This, apparently, was the production during which the orchestrations were lost.) Busch is going to revise his revision in collaboration with Kenneth Elliott for an upcoming staging at the Pasadena Playhouse (June 20-July 27), and fans of this wonderful score will surely join me in wishing these gentlemen the best of luck.