Craig Bierko and Kate Leveringin Thou Shalt Not(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Craig Bierko and Kate Levering
in Thou Shalt Not
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Susan Stroman has dreamed up a couple dozen marvelous ideas for Thou Shalt Not, an adaptation of Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin. The noted director/choreographer has reportedly wanted to do the adaptation ever since her late husband, Mike Ockrent, handed her a copy of the steamy 1867 novel of sin and retribution among lower-class Parisians. In realizing her wish, Stroman has executed some eye-popping, jaw-dropping thou-shalts; the problem is that, when it comes to big musicals (or any kind of musical), you need a hundred or more thou-shalts, a tally she reached in The Producers. Nor can they be outnumbered by the thou-shalt-nots, and that's the situation in this roistering, brooding tuner.

Stroman's decision to do the show wasn't itself a necessarily good or bad idea. Contrary to some of the hysterical disagreements lodged at by early preview stalkers, it can be a good idea to rework something like Thérèse Raquin if you do it well--as happened, say, when Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories was tackled by Harold Prince, Fred Ebb, John Kander, and Joe Masteroff. To adapt grim subject matter for the musical stage is only a bad idea if not done well--as happened, say, when Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman was assaulted by Harold Prince, Fred Ebb, John Kander, and Terrence McNally.

Maybe the best idea Stroman had in re Thou Shalt Not comes in the second act, when she brings back the character of Camille (Norbert Leo Butz) as a ghost and hands him a juicily vindictive song and dance. In the first act, Camille is the frail and ailing husband whom Thérèse Raquin (Kate Levering) and her lover Laurent (Craig Bierko), an itinerant piano player, bump off so they can be together. Camille hadn't been much of a spouse for Thérèse, and the interloping Laurent deftly pushes her idle passion buttons--so much so that, when the three go rowing, she hardly protests as Laurent tosses Camille over the side and then capsizes the boat to make the death look like an accident.

Yes, it's a splashy move to have the spectral but spritely Camille, representing the lovers' guilt, declare gleeful triumph over them in a ditty called "Oh, Ain't That Sweet." And Butz, who had been forced to creep around the corners of the show like an oncoming cold, takes full advantage of his newfound freedom, entertaining himself and the audience as neither he nor they have been entertained previously during the show. It's one of those old-fashioned, Broadway musical moments when a performer, carrying his own inner light, steals the show.

Which, unfortunately, takes us to Stroman's biggest mistake--namely tapping jazz and pop pianist/crooner Harry Connick, Jr. to write the score. This move, which was evidently seconded by librettist David Thompson and the producers, makes a certain amount of sense in that Stroman has opted to relocate Zola's narrative to a music shack in New Orleans that's run by Thérèse's aunt and mother-in-law, the live wire Madame Raquin (Debra Monk). Connick, who was raised in the Big Easy and whose sound is soaked in its sounds, would seem a logical choice to supply the needed musical bouquet. The baleful surprise is that he doesn't cut the moutard here. Aside from Butz's turn and a folkish ditty called "Tugboat" sung by Thérèse, Laurent and Camille on that rowing excursion, there is very little to be said in favor of Connick's Thou Shalt Not output. Whenever the illicit lovers are moved to sing, they are unmoving. Thérèse gets to warble the clunky "I Need to Be in Love"--was ever a love song more prosaically titled?--and Laurent intones a cumbersome downer called "The Other Hours." More egregiously, the reliable Monk is saddled with two clinkers called "My Little World" and "I've Got My Eye on You." (On hearing this one, older music lovers may long for Cole Porter's "I've Got My Eyes on You.") For what it's worth, Connick does faithfully represent jazz/zydeco/Creole/Cajun rhythms here, according to the New Orleans-wise companion I took to the show.

In deciding how to handle an updated (to 1946) Thérèse Raquin, Stroman seems to have waffled between musical play and dance piece. On the evidence, she may have gone in the wrong direction. There are two thrilling dances in the show. The first, listed in the program as "The Other Hours Ballet," takes place in and around the bed where Laurent seduces Thérèse and she turns right around and seduces him back. (This is one of the scenes that scandalized the French when the book was released; it was hot as a furnace with Kate Nelligan in a television adaptation a few decades back.) Stroman precedes the bed-bound pas de deux by introducing a chorus line garbed in black, representing all things lustful and recriminatory. Equally libidinous is the "'Thou Shalt Not' Ballet," a piece so effective it might have been better placed at the top of the show. (The actual, raucous opening number has the look and blare of an outtake from the Yellow Dress segment of Contact.) Elsewhere, though, Stroman's creations, performed against the backdrop of Thomas Lynch's uncharacteristically so-so sets, register as middling to fair. She stages a Mardi Gras scene with nothing special about it, although costume designer William Ivey Long does strut some mighty fine stuff.

Norbert Leo Butz and Debra Monkin Thou Shalt Not(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
Norbert Leo Butz and Debra Monk
in Thou Shalt Not
(Photo: Paul Kolnik)
There's a worse problem, even with the best of the show's dances, and it has to do with dramatic structure. Thérèse Raquin is a study of sin as claustrophobia. The tension must mount as the lovers slip irrevocably from a discussion of murder as a foolish notion to the act itself and on through its destructive repercussions. Not the least of their challenges is living with the mute and wheelchair-ridden--but aware--Madame Raquin as she follows their every move with accusing eyes. But, because the songs and dances of Thou Shalt Not too often interrupt the proceedings rather than deepen them, there is little dramatic torque here. As with other narratives in which hell-bent lovers are taught harsh lessons--Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy--the authorial foot can never let up from the dramaturgical pedal.

Stroman lets up, and so does book writer Thompson. He may not have had much of a chance with this assignment, since it surely must have been a case of following the leader--i.e., Stroman, with whom he worked on And the World Goes Round and the ill-fated stinker Steel Pier. Thompson follows Zola carefully, including secondary characters from the novel like the local policeman, Officer Michaud (Leo Burmester). He also keeps set pieces that are rather harrowing in the book, among them Laurent's checking the morgue for Camille's body. But Thompson does deliver a touching line that doesn't seem to be Zola's: When Thérèse describes her feelings about Camille to Laurent, she says that Camille's touch is like having erasers rub her. She feels as if she's being erased. That certainly gets to the heart of a woman leading a loveless life.

Needed for any successful dramatization of Thérèse Raquin is a tormented but scorching Thérèse--someone who conjures the brutality that was attributed to the book on its publication, someone along the lines of a Teresa Stratas who can dance crossed with a Nora Kaye who can sing. Kate Levering, although she executes Stroman's dance steps prettily and does the mattress-top writhing well, doesn't begin to tip her pointed toes into the waters of emotion. In 42nd Street, Levering was Peggy Sawyer, who went out a chorus girl and came back a star; here she goes out a star and comes back a chorus girl. Craig Bierko does begin to get the idea; discovered looking down and dirty in the opening sequence, he gives off sexy vibes and even tries out a N'awlins accent. (For some reason, Thou Shalt Not is told in flashback, and the opening and closing scenes take place somewhere outside of New Orleans.) Alone among the players, Bierko says things like "woik" for "work" and seems to understand that Yats (for "where yat?") is the name given to people from his social stratum. But since he's handed very little to sing or say that commands attention as he spins from bounder to killer to haunted man, he ultimately leaves little impression. Ultimately, both Bierko and Levering give their best performances in the publicity photograph for the show, where they have the right Stanley-and-Stella chemistry.

In the dance hall where Thou Shalt Not begins there are slim bottles of Tabasco sauce on each of the tables. Would that Stroman and colleagues had provided more creative Tabasco for what is, too often, a less than a spicy endeavor.