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Jason Dula, Lauren Shealy, Jeanne Lehman, Jane Bodle, and
Steve Routman in Lingoland
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
On the walls in the lobby at Lingoland, the musical revue at the York, are magnetic tiles of random words -- the kind that people put on their refrigerators. You're encouraged at intermission to rearrange them to form thoughts, semi-thoughts, or Dadaist nonsense. Unfortunately, this is an apt metaphor for Lingoland, a self-described "collage" derived from the works of lyricist-librettist-poet-visual artist Kenward Elmslie, who is right up there on stage, reading his work from a lectern and providing tenuously linking narration as the show is performed by a talented cast. The words and thoughts in the revue feel as random and unfocused as those on the lobby walls, sometimes arresting or evocative in their isolation but rarely adding up to a cohesive thought or observation. Any artist with as many hyphenates as Elmslie will be hard pressed to come up with a unifying theme, concept, or philosophy to structure an evening; the "collage" characterization is a tip-off that, most likely, he hasn't even tried to do so in this case.

Elmslie has been kicking around the New York artistic scene for some five decades, compiling an impressive if haphazard resume. Musical theater buffs will know him as the author of The Grass Harp, adapted from Truman Capote's novella, which graced the Martin Beck for seven performances in 1971. With a great diva cast (Barbara Cook, Karen Morrow, Carol Brice) and Claibe Richardson's luminous music, it's a cult musical worth investigating, though too passive to be truly stageworthy. Elmslie and the late Richardson wrote another interesting Off-Broadway score, Lola, and his other collaborations reveal Elmslie to be a far-wandering journeyman. There are operas with Ned Rorem and Jack Beeson; operatic adaptations of Henry James and Chekhov with Thomas Pasatieri; popular songs; books of poetry; a novel; essays; and some new work for Lingoland, for which he has employed a whole new raft of collaborators (one appealing item is "Who'll Prop Me Up in the Rain?", with music by William Elliott). But most of this output is, let's say, on the periphery of American popular culture, more at home in salons or among the cultural elite than before rabble like you and me. And that periphery, it turns out, is an uncomfortable place for this type of musical revue.

You know you're in trouble from the moment Elmslie -- the tour guide for the evening, and a genial, avuncular, but decidedly odd host -- refers to "hallucinations even I can't make much sense of." He means the collage projections on a rear screen (a growing trend in recent musical stagings, such as Harold and Maude, and not one to be encouraged) -- but if he can't make sense of them, who can, and why try? Nor are his lyrics and prose models of clarity. Elmslie's love for language is plain, and he's both a dexterous rhymer ("Being an amorous tidbit / Can lead to the why-did-I-do-what-I-did bit") and a purveyor of sweeping romantic imagery ("Love bursts forth... like a bird in a sunflower field"). But too often his output is overdense with ideas -- while you're parsing one couplet, five others are piling up behind it, and by the time you catch up you've lost the thread.

The subject matter and forms of presentation are all over the map: a spoken ensemble about "Touche's Salon" (presumably John Latouche, and filled with fey references to '50s literary lights); a ballet-mechanique salute to Busby Berkeley; a semi-aria "Vaudeville for Jean Harlow"; a leaden whimsy about the Bushes in Brazil; and numerous diary recitations about Elmslie's late lover, Joe Brainard, tender and affectionate but never conveying what was special about him. The songs from The Grass Harp -- nine of them, several not on the cast album -- perhaps work the best, not just because they're more conventional and familiar than the other esoterica, but because they have finite, clear subject matter. Overall, though, it's an unruly playlist. How does one arrange it? Lingoland just seems to set the control on "random" and hits "play"; the numbers come one after another because they can't all come at once.

Kenward Elmslie
With such a jambalaya, James Morgan, the director, can't do much but keep the performers moving about his own set design, smiling hard, sometimes even in the sadder songs. Or he'll arrange them in silhouette profile, to gaze adoringly at Elmslie while he reads. (Elmslie also sings, after a fashion; one highlight is his rendition of "They," a witty meditation on alienation from the masses.) They're a likable bunch, and Jane Bodle and Steve Routman, in particular, are genuine singing actors, not generic pretty-person-with-pretty-voice revue casting. Jeanne Lehman's soprano, a welcome fixture in New York music theater for decades, is as plummy as ever, though I didn't care for her flinging out her arms and twirling on "Chain of Love," like Julie Andrews at the top of an Alp. Jason Dula navigates some difficult material confidently, including an intense duet (with Bodle) from the Elmslie/Pasatieri The Seagull; Lauren Shealy is solid on that Harlow item but, unluckily, has the wrong voice and manner for Grass Harp's "Marry with Me," which should be surefire. The able musical director Matt Castle even joins in on some of the vocals, and for a small revue, he conducts a large, excellent orchestra.

For all of Elmslie's generous helpings of his oeuvre and his sometimes painful personal recollections, one doesn't emerge from Lingoland with a vivid impression of him. His work is simply too scattered. Basic rule for anyone contemplating a retrospective revue: Sole authorship, in and of itself, isn't enough of an organizing concept. Ain't Misbehavin' had all those great Fats Waller songs but what really made it golden was its view of a specific time and place. Just throwing a good songbook onstage wasn't enough for Dream (Johnny Mercer), Swinging on a Star (Johnny Burke), Stardust (Mitchell Parrish), or The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm (George and Ira, of course), so how well can we expect it to work for Kenward Elmslie?

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