Heather Spore and Max von Essenin The Umbrellas of Cherbourg(Photo © Mike McLaughlin)
Heather Spore and Max von Essen
in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
(Photo © Mike McLaughlin)
For years, I've been hearing a friend of mine rave about the 1979 Public Theater production of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a stage musical based on the beloved, through-sung, 1964 French film that was written and directed by Jacques Demy, with music by Michel Legrand. The show starred Maureen Silliman and Dean Pitchford as Geneviève and Guy, two young lovers whose devotion is put to the test when he's called to military service. (On screen, these roles were unforgettably filled by Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo, though their singing was dubbed by others.) The great Sheldon Harnick -- Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, etc. -- did the English language stage adaptation, in association with Charles Burr.

According to an article in the newsletter of the Two River Theater Company, which is currently presenting The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in Red Bank, New Jersey, the show was a sold-out hit at the Public but, "in spite of its popularity, the creators of the film decided to hold off on any further theatrical productions." Indeed, Two River's staging is billed as "the first fully-staged American production since 1979." Such adventurous programming deserves a standing ovation, even if both the show itself and this realization of it are flawed.

The Umbrellas film is treasured for its cinematography and production design, over and above the winning performances of the cast, Demy's skilled direction, and Legrand's alternately enchanting and heartbreaking music. Such excellence hides some inherent flaws in the movie. For one thing, the score consists almost entirely of unrhymed, sung dialogue rather than actual songs, with only a couple of exceptions. After a while, this becomes a bit strained and monotonous, though less so on film than on stage. Also, to a certain degree, Legrand indulges in the unfortunate practice -- later relied on by Andrew Lloyd Webber and others -- of repeating a melody in unrelated dramatic contexts just because it's pretty. In Umbrellas, what became famous in this country as the tune of the song "Watch What Happens" is first heard sung by M. Dubourg and Roland Cassard (who eventually becomes Geneviève's husband) as they discuss precious stones in Dubourg's jewelry shop. Later, it turns up again when Cassard expresses his feelings for Geneviève to her mother, Mme. Emery. The second occurrence is more appropriate, but the point is that the two sets of lyrics have nothing to do with each other, so why should they be tied to the same melody?

Another issue is that the Umbrellas film is mostly made up of very short scenes. This works wonderfully well on screen but not well at all on stage; as soon as a situation and location are established, the lights dim and the characters are whisked off to another scene. At Two River, this often happens via a turntable that rarely stops turning. (Jonathan Fox is the show's director, Neil Patel its scenic designer. Musical direction is by Nathan Hurwitz, who has provided new orchestrations of the score.)

The cast is a mixed bag. Max von Essen is perfect as Guy, singing beautifully and creating a fully rounded character. He also has a certain European air about him, which is more than can be said for Heather Spore as Geneviève or for Maureen Silliman, who has graduated to the role of Mme. Emery. Partly because of their inappropriate hair styles but also because of their looks and stage deportment, these two seem about as French as Dairy Queen. In addition, neither woman sings all that well: Spore's soprano is tremulous and Silliman's head voice is wobbly. But Ken Krugman is wonderfully empathetic as Cassard, while Steven Stein-Grainger makes a strong impression as Dubourg and in two other small roles. Bravo to the Two River Theater Company for letting us see The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, even if the show is perhaps not the lost gem it was said to be.

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Jennifer Hope Wills and Ian D. Clarkin Finian's Rainbow(Photo © Brett Thomas)
Jennifer Hope Wills and Ian D. Clark
in Finian's Rainbow
(Photo © Brett Thomas)
The 2004 Irish Repertory Theatre production of the Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg-Fred Saidy musical Finian's Rainbow did much to belie the rap that the 1947 show is so hopelessly dated as to be unfit for consumption by modern audiences. But Finian's was not performed exactly as written at the Irish Rep; the text was judiciously edited, and the scenes that call for a white actor in blackface were finessed with the use of a mask instead. Also, the production made use of a narrator, a device that made the musical's potentially offensive elements more palatable through a distancing effect.

It remained to be seen whether or not a more or less intact, no-holds-barred, narrator-less presentation of the show would fly, so we should all be thankful that such a production is now on stage at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. This is probably as close to an authentic Finian's Rainbow as those of us who are too young to have seen the original are likely to witness in our lifetimes. The fact that it's a first-class production helps make a strong case for the material: Paul Wonsek's storybook sets are lovely, Colleen McMillan's costumes are brilliantly colorful, and a decent-sized orchestra plays the classic score beautifully under the direction of Douglass G. Lutz. Leading the cast, Jennifer Hope Wills is alternately winsome and spunky as Sharon McLonergan; Ian D. Clark is funny and vital as her father, Finian; and Christopher Sutton, whom I loved in the title role of The Flight of the Lawnchair Man at Goodspeed this summer, steals the show as the leprechaun Og. Only Don Burroughs as Woody Mahoney disappoints with his pitch-problematic singing.

Given that director Malcolm Black has made such a noble effort to present the show pretty much as originally written, for better or worse, the cuts and changes that have been made for this production seem hard to explain. A brief book scene preceding the song "Necessity" has been excised and so has the "shuffling" of the Howard character in his scene with Senator Rawkins, presumably because of perceived political incorrectness -- but are these sequences any dicier than the racial humor that has been retained, such as the blackface bit? In one of the show's most famous songs, the couplet "If this isn't love, I'm Carmen Miranda / If this isn't love, it's Red propaganda" has been replaced by an alternate, less witty couplet used in some previous revivals of the show and in the 1968 film version: "If this isn't love, there's no Glocca Morra / If this isn't love, I'm Zsa Zsa Gabora." And when a rainbow appears in the final scene, we hear strains of "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz! (That immortal ballad has lyrics by Harburg but music by Harold Arlen, not Burton Lane. Is it possible that its melody was heard at this point in the original Finian's Rainbow? I doubt it.)

Such tinkering notwithstanding, the Walnut Street production deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about the history of the American musical theater. As for the score -- which includes "Old Devil Moon," "Look to the Rainbow," and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" -- all I can say is, glory be!

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Mike Faraci in Jesus Christ Superstar(Photo © Doug Thoms)
Mike Faraci in Jesus Christ Superstar
(Photo © Doug Thoms)
Envelope-pushing productions of Jesus Christ Superstar are to be expected, given the rock opera's subject matter and history. The original Broadway staging was notable for outré (some might say "vulgar") direction, sets, and costumes, while the film version mixed such modern trappings as fighter planes and machine gun-carrying soldiers with more traditional images in depicting the story of Christ as told by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice.

The problem with the current LiveStage Performance production of Superstar at the Producers Club II is not that director Doug Thoms' ideas are so far-out but that they don't cohere and, upon analysis, rarely make sense. One can perhaps see the intent of having Jesus dressed in the blue-collar clothing of a modern-day carpenter, but this makes him come across as a regular guy rather than the extraordinarily charismatic figure he's supposed to be. (Note to Thoms: It's Godspell, not Jesus Christ Superstar, that posits Jesus as an Everyman.) Why are Caiaphas and Simon Zealotes played by women here -- and why are Caiaphas's henchmen garbed as religious acolytes in Act I but as policemen in Act II? In the temple scene, why do the characters hawk various religions rather than material goods? Why doesn't Judas kiss Jesus in order to betray him, even though the reference to the kiss remains in the show? Why is Herod played by Richard Kent Green as a mob boss? What does it all mean??!!

Mike Faraci sings well as Jesus but, perhaps having taken a cue from the director, is very bland in terms of personality. Timothy Quinlan displays major vocal chops as Judas, though he tends to sound like Chris Rock (of all people) when screaming his high notes. Yet another fine singer is Bridget Beirne as Mary Magdalene -- but the character's plaintive "I Don't Know How to Love Him" is heard here in an odd, ineffective, country blues-inflected arrangement.

Whatever the missteps of this Superstar, it features a magisterial performance by Jay Pierce in the role of Pontius Pilate. As Off-Off-Broadway theatergoers know very well, the glut of performing talent in New York City is such that there are simply not enough jobs in Broadway shows to accommodate those who are fully qualified for them. As a result, people with extraordinary gifts sometimes turn up in tiny, low-profile, semi-professional productions, working for little or no money and receiving scant attention. With his opera-quality baritone, sharp acting skills, and riveting stage presence, Pierce is by far the best Pilate I've ever seen -- and that includes Barry Dennen, who played the part on the original concept recording, on Broadway, and in the film version. For what it's worth, an asterisk in the program notes that Pierce is a member of Actors' Equity Association. See this show for him, and overlook the weird stuff.