We knew we were in for a treat when Randy Newman, the six-time Grammy-winning songsmith, walked out onstage in cape and horns. The attire was appropriate; after all, in the New York City Center Encores! Off-Center one-night-only concert staging of Newman's rarely seen musical Faust, the author himself was playing the devil. And a devilishly good time was had as Newman and company, a group that included Michael Cerveris, Laura Osnes, and Vonda Shepard, sang its way through a contemporary reworking of one of the hallmarks of German literature: Goethe's Faust.
That's not to say it was perfect, however. Newman's Faust, which was originally staged in the mid-1990s at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and Goodman Theatre in Chicago, is as unwieldy to present as the original text. Directed by Thomas Kail, this was a full-fledged concert, one that highlighted both the material's flaws and strengths: in the former column, an already hard-to-follow story made largely incoherent in its concert abridgement; in the latter, a smart, clever score that showcases Newman at his finest.
Faithful to the source material, Newman's Faust examines what happens when the Devil (Newman) and the Lord (Isaiah Johnson) make a bet that the Devil cannot lead Henry Faust (Tony Vincent), a disaffected Notre Dame sophomore, astray. Shortly thereafter, Henry meets Margaret (Osnes), a fetching coed for whom he instantly falls. And then, as expected when Lucifer is involved, it all goes to hell.
Thankfully, Kail's production placed the most emphasis on Newman's music, which blends his "shuffle songs" and hard rock and gospel, played by a tight 11-piece orchestra led by Chris Fenwick and sung in part by the wonderful Broadway Inspirational Voices, conducted by Michael McElroy. The score received extraordinary treatment from its cast; Vincent, in particular, was in crazy-good voice on the driving rock tunes assigned to Henry. Similarly, Johnson made the most of his time onstage as the Lord, dressed in a bright white suit (costumes were designed by Clint Ramos).
Osnes' lovely soprano was perfectly matched to Margaret's material, particularly "Gainesville," first popularized by Linda Ronstadt. And in one of the year's great stage moments to date, Newman and multi-Emmy and Grammy winner Shepard brought the house down in the second act with the gorgeous duet "Feels Like Home." One couldn't help but wish that Cerveris, in a largely throwaway role, had more to do, and that he was able to showcase his rock voice.
As for Newman himself? Clearly he was having a ball. Hearing his scratchy, bluesy voice live and in-person was a particular thrill. It's not very likely that Faust will follow the same trajectory as last year's one-night Encores! Off-Center concert, Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's Violet, which eventually moved to Broadway. But after listening to Newman's Faust for so many years as a concept album, it was nice to see it finally have its moment in New York City.