Leslee Warren and cast in Cabin in the Sky(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Leslee Warren and cast in Cabin in the Sky
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
This has been a great week for seeing small productions of old, old musicals in NYC. Over the weekend the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti pulled out Jerome Kern's Oh, Boy!, from 1917. Last night, Mel Miller's adventurous Musicals Tonight! series opened its season with Vernon Duke's 1940 Cabin in the Sky.

Which is the trickier property to pull off in 2003? Surprisingly, it's Cabin in the Sky. The Kern title is a "Princess Theater" show, one of that revered group of early Kern-Guy Bolton-P.G. Wodehouse musicals in which song and story had at least a nodding acquaintance; as such it's a grandfather to modern musicals, its influence stretching at least as far as early Sondheim. But Cabin in the Sky belongs to an obscure, nearly forgotten theatrical subgenre: It's a faux-naif African-American folk tale, a morality play with elements of fantasy, mild social satire, and a good-against-evil plot with an outcome that's never much in doubt. Transporting a 2003 audience back to 1940 -- that is, the 1940 of all-white audiences applauding all-black casts in what today strikes us as racially sensitive material -- turns out to be ticklish business.

Not that this Cabin isn't fascinating for musical theater buffs or a perfectly solid piece by the standards of its day. Aside from Duke's strong, sophisticated music, there are deft lyrics by a then-22-year-old John La Touche. The book, by Lynn Root, tells a simple story clearly and with good humor: Little Joe (Tyrone Grant), having abandoned his loving wife Petunia (Leslee Warren) for the sultry Georgia Brown (Thursday Farrar), has been shot in a barroom brawl. Only Petunia's fervent prayers keep him from instant damnation. Instead, he is returned to Earth for six months, during which time Lucifer, Jr. (Joe Wilson, Jr.) and "the General," an agent of the Lord (Glenn Townsend), battle for his soul. See what I mean by faux-naif?

Root keeps the dialogue '40s-topical, with jokes about Russia and disarmament conferences, and he knows how to set up a good salty exchange: When Georgia's other suitor is asked if he's packing a pistol, he growls, "This bulge ain't all me!" But none of the characters go on much of a journey. Petunia's piety becomes a little monotonous; apparently original star Ethel Waters's radiance transcended this. (You can see it in the 1943 film version.) It's actually a relief when Petunia turns into a femme fatale in order to beat Georgia at her own game. As for Georgia, she's an uncomplicated floozy. And Little Joe is simply a gambling, womanizing, lazy lout who's trying (not very hard) to reform. One has the uneasy feeling that these characters were kept basic and predictable because the public wouldn't have accepted black dramatis personae with more edge or intellect.

Joe Wilson, Jr. as Lucifer, Jr.(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Joe Wilson, Jr. as Lucifer, Jr.
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
So, there's a lot to look past here. But if you can do so -- and if you can ignore the uneasy feeling that the P.C. police are off in the wings, waiting to swoop in -- there are rewards. Among them is the hit song "Taking a Chance on Love," sung when Petunia realizes that Little Joe is going to live after all. It's a great, catchy number but a misleading one as far as the rest of the score goes. When writing for Broadway, Duke seldom concealed his classical training for long, and there's some damnably difficult music here -- wild melodic intervals, unexpected syncopations, harmonies that run the gamut from Dixie blues to gospel to near-opera.

Nor is this a meticulously integrated score; some of the song cues are as wispy as dandelions. But who cares when they lead you to the hot salsa rhythms of "Savannah," the tuneful sassiness of "Love Me Tomorrow," the bluesy twists of "Love Turned the Light Out," or the sheer dirtiness of "Honey in the Honeycomb," in which practically every word is a double entendre? Miller has even added and restored some material, to mixed effect: "Dat Suits Me" is a rousing traditional spiritual with gorgeous harmonies, but "In My Old Virginia Home" is a nonsensical ballad in which Petunia and Joe not only rhapsodize about "my old Virginia home on the Nile," but manage to fit in a reference to "O Sole Mio."

Musicals Tonight! got a little more ambitious in its stagings last season, and the effort paid off: Its My Favorite Year was faster paced, better cast, and more affecting than the Broadway original, and Lady, Be Good! had Nancy Lemenager -- soon to co-star in Never Gonna Dance -- in the company. So it's a little surprising to see that, for Cabin in the Sky, director-choreographer Thomas Mills has provided only the most basic, functional staging. And, even with prompt books held firmly in the performers' hands, there were plenty of opening-night gaffes. But Warren is a fine Petunia, supple-voiced and playing the character's sincerity to the hilt without making her a goody-goody. As Satan's spawn, Wilson is a well-put-together temptation with felicitous style and an evil laugh. Farrar's Georgia Brown doesn't offer many variations on the standard-issue sexpot but she looks and moves like sin incarnate. And Grant's Little Joe, perhaps the toughest role to liberate from the limitations of the text, is likable even when he's being a cad. You wind up rooting for the bounder in spite of yourself.

This Cabin has its rickety aspects, but it's hard not to salute Miller & Co. for giving us the property as written (Encores! probably would have tried to "smooth it out") and trusting us to judge it on its own terms. Buffs don't often get to see this particular relic of musical theater history; how lucky that it comes with a parade of sensational Vernon Duke tunes.