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All About Us

This musical version of The Skin of Our Teeth turns out not to be one for the ages. logo
Shuler Hensley and Cady Huffman in All About Us
(© Richard Termine)
Starting with its warm-and-fuzzy title, just about everything is off-kilter in All About Us, the revised Fred Ebb-John Kander-Joseph Stein musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, now getting its world premiere at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Granted, Wilder's 1942 tragicomedy, written during World War II and concerning humanity's instinct for survival despite calamitous odds, is a tremendous challenge to stage effectively. But that doesn't begin to explain the rubble that this crowd of Broadway veterans, along with director Gabriel Barre, has allowed to accumulate on the Westport stage as if it were the figurative equivalent of James Youmans' end-of-play, disaster-area set design.

When Wilder wrote his hope-springs-eternal work, its three acts were placed in, respectively, the Ice Age, the time of the Great Flood, and the present day. Tuned-up with a series of in-one-ear-out-the-other tunes, All About Us is an intermissionless, two hours-and-14-minutes enterprise. (Why no intermission? The cynical answer is that the manufacturers didn't want to provide an easy opportunity for patrons to make early exits.) Progressing, if that's the right word, through the catastrophes depicted is the enduring Antrobus family: George (Shuler Hensley, who doesn't sing much), wife Maggie (Yvette Freeman), children Henry (Carlo Alban) and Gladys (Samantha Futerman), and their va-va-voom maid, Sabina (Cady Huffman, complete with a Brooklyn accent).

The liberties that Stein has taken with Wilder's script flattens it into a series of unfunny, lumbering sketches in which the Antrobuses -- who are also Adam, Eve, Cain and Noah's brood -- weather natural and man-made disasters. Every once in a while, the actors also balk at the lines or each other in some tedious fourth-wall breaking that only serves to make the project feel that much longer. Yes, Wilder always wanted ticket buyers to remember they were watching a play; but in this treatment, the production team fails to make the theatrical meta-ploy work.

In the past, Kander and the late Ebb were able to dress up dark and darkish subject matter with now percussive, now plangent, now witty scores for such bold and bawdy works as Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Perhaps because their sensibility is sometimes fashionably skeptical, whereas Wilder is unshakably and far more trenchantly positive, they haven't risen to the occasion more than twice here.

There is a cute ditty called "A Whole Lot of Lovin'!" harmonized by Socrates (Daniel Marcus), Plato (Michael Thomas Holmes), Homer (Frank Vlastnik), and Moses (Michael James Leslie), as well as "Military Man," an anti-war song performed in choreographer Christopher Gattelli's tight drill routine.

Two other songs stand out for other reasons. "Nice People," a so-so, heavily ironic tune snarled by Alban as the incorrigibly evil Henry, is also effective at the moment since it disturbingly expresses some of the misanthropic sentiments attributed this week to Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui.

Then there's the bluesy ballad "Rain," lined out and leered by the scene-stealing Eartha Kitt as the fortune-teller Esmeralda. The song's not especially good, but enough goes on in it to allow the inimitable Kitt to apply her never-miss supper-club stylings. As usual, this involves singling out audience members at whom to aim that hilariously accusatory whammy of hers, not to mention showing off her great gams. (Ann Hould-Ward is the costumer.) Unlike the rest of the people involved in this enterprise, Kitt knows what the audience wants and gives it to them.

Kander is reportedly committed to having every show that he and his late songwriting partner completed brought to the stage. He was right to press for the recently opened and entertaining Broadway musical Curtains, but this time, the bigger favor would perhaps have been to keep the trunk lid firmly shut.

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