The Fig Leaves Are Falling
The revival of Allan Sherman and George Abbott's ‘60s flop is clever, but where's the story?
Here's a tip: If you're going to a production mounted by Unsung Musicals Co., it's not going to look like Phantom or sound like Les Miz, or any number of award-winning, time-tested musicals that are regularly, in fact, sung. And that's the point. Even so, your program does tell you that Unsung Musicals Co. is "dedicated to the preservation of musical theater through the restoration and presentation of obscure, but artistically sound, works." And with "The Fig Leaves Are Falling," currently running at The Connelly Theatre, that is exactly what you get.
The "obscure" part certainly applies. The original 1969 production of Fig Leaves, despite book and lyrics by well-known song parodist Allan Sherman and direction by George Abbott (Damn Yankees), ran for all of four performances before it shut down, helped along by a blistering review from The New York Times' Clive Barnes. Star Dorothy Loudon earned a Tony Award nomination, but the rest of the show faded into forgettable obscurity.
The gist of the revival: It's the Swingin' Sixties! The fig leaves are falling everywhere, and just in case you weren't sure you heard it right the first time, that phrase is repeated again and again until you really and truly get it. Square suburban suit Harry Stone (Jonathan Rayson) lives in affluent Larchmont, New York with his wife and former high school sweetheart Lillian (Natalie Venetia Belcon) and their children. Harry is an executive at a greeting card company where he can faintly recall his lost dreams of being a poet. One day, into his office walks Jenny (Morgan Weed), a nubile 24-year-old secretary, and…you know the rest. Life with Lillian in Larchmont is safe, easy, practical, and boring. Jenny awakens him to the poetry he thought he'd lost. Or did he ever really lose it? Was it with Lillian all along? Zzzzz.
The packaging is entertaining -- a vaudeville feel, with saucy little numbers that snake around the stage, and a small, energetic chorus -- but we never really get beyond nice with Harry and Lillian to, well, interesting.
The plot is sweet but bland, like Harry, and Lillian, too. (This is Mad Men lite.) Jenny on the other hand, is all shimmying color, and Morgan Weed really captures the self-assured certainty of a 24-year-old sex kitten who thinks she knows it all (not unlike Megan Draper). Costume designer Janine Marie McCabe ignites that persona thanks to a flouncy plaid-and-pleated look that is a cross between Teen Vogue and a Guess advertisement.
Somewhere in the mix are Sherman's tight, deft, and smart lyrics that deliver a broad wink filled with impeccable wordplay -- but they are often too clever by half. There are so very many refrains of "The Fig Leaves Are Falling," including "And next week at Gimbel's/Four floors of phallic symbols/'Cause the fig leaves are falling everywhere," and while they're clever and wonderfully rhyming, we get it already. When you're stopping every two seconds to notice the wordplay, it's hard to notice anything else, and perhaps, that was the point. Sherman's flimsy book revealed a story which was far less tight, deft, and smart than his lyrics. Director Ben West, who revised, adapted and streamlined the musical from the original and earlier versions, cleaned it up, but Sherman's mawkish bones never really get fleshed out.
So why is this production worth reviving? On a deeper level, The Fig Leaves Are Falling represents its time in exactly the ways it fell flat: the cheeky, coy entendres as a foil to the purity of the two protagonists, as though elegant chatter was a proxy for action. Raw, real shows of the same time like Hair were a bridge to the next generation of theater; Shows like The Fig Leaves Are Falling were more about how the hard it can be to move on when you're still stuck in boxes of the present. That was the paradox for Harry within the show, and for Allan Sherman, talent though he was, in creating it.
But still. The man who brought us "Hello Muddah, Hello Father" had more to say, and though it may not have been Sondheim (though it does have that "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" feel), it is some very good work from a guy who knew his way around a lyric, if not really a story. It's enough. Let the fig leaves fall where they may.