HARPS AND ANGELS music and lyrics by Randy Newman, conceived by Jack Viertel – Mark Taper Forum – Los Angeles Theater Review

by Harvey Perr on November 23, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

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AN UNABASHED LOVE LETTER TO MICHAEL McKEAN

Dear Michael McKean,

I hereby declare that I am unashamedly besotted with love for you. Why? Because last night, I saw you take a handful of songs by Randy Newman and watched you become a different character with every song, turning each into an exquisitely dimensional one-act play. You were a rumpled everyman one moment. a brassy country western star the next, and, perhaps most memorably, you were a man in search of a lost love so intense in your passion and so distraught over her rejection and still so shamelessly and even angrily dedicated to the aimless pursuit of her that you made me laugh and cry at the same time. You found just exactly the precise conversational tone that makes Newman’s lyrics the brilliant things of beauty they are. And the musicality you brought to each song not only honored Newman but discovered in them nuances – the irony, the wit, the heart and the heartbreak – that must have made Newman smile with that very special sense of pride that an artist must feel when he hears an interpretation that not only gets to the meat of his song but transcends it. You are the most perfect theatrical interpreter of Newman’s songbook I can imagine and, truth be told, I could have watched you forever. I think that what you achieve is precisely what the artists behind Harps and Angels had in mind when they thought of creating this homage to Newman’s body of work. You took those songs and made of them the kind of songs that the musical theater, particularly at this moment in its history, desperately needs. Through the simplest means – the kind that is as natural as breathing to the best actors, when performer and material become one – you performed little feats of magic. I will never forget what you did with “Shame” or “Potholes” or “Old Man” or “Down in New Orleans” or “Big Hat, No Cattle.” They are already part of theater legend, as far as I’m concerned. And I hope that when you get to Broadway – where you and Harps and Angels are clearly headed – you become the talk of the town and win every award within reach and show old New York what Los Angeles was lucky to see first.

Now, I don’t want you to think that you were the only reason to praise the show you’re in. You are getting incredible support. There isn’t an actor who doesn’t connect passionately to the songs he or she is committed to performing.  Since I know her as a serious actor, and whose performance in Doubt was so eloquent, Adriane Lenox was a revelation. Her mournful rendition of “Louisiana 1927” was genuinely haunting, but her sassy angel in America in “God’s Song” and “Harps and Angels” was delicious, and the simplicity with which she delivered “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” gave it a freshness I didn’t imagine was possible.  And I also loved the gently limpid duet between you and her at the end of “Sail Away.”  Matthew Saldivar, who made Billis his very own in the LA production of South Pacific, is a knockout. The way his working class hero went from the comic “Birmingham” to the touching love song, “Marie,” which he sings to his sleeping wife, was especially good, but everything he did was charged with humor and, dare I say it, palpable sexuality. And his “Short People” was hilarious. Storm Large sang “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” as if it’s never been sung before, and I can’t think of a higher compliment, but it was with her version of “You Can Leave Your Hat On” that her ample beauty really came into play, and she was a perfect object of your love in “Shame.”  Ryder Bach is theatrically vivid and just plain damned funny, and still knows how to create a character and tell a story musically through that character as well as you and everyone else does.  It may just be that, at this stage, he pushes a bit too much for the comedy instead of finding it within himself. I’ve come to Katey Sagal last. Now I wasn’t surprised that she has a powerful voice since she was originally a Harlette, and singing back-up to Bette Midler is no easy task; nor was I surprised that she has a strong stage presence,  but what Harps and Angels needs – and what it gets in spades from you and the others – is the sense that the songs come from the gut of each character, and Ms. Sagal lets too much of it come from her throat. And yet, having said that, she did build, with fine dramatic flourish, “Great Nations of Europe” and “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” to rousing climaxes.

I also have to admit that I walked into the theater with a slight prejudice. The idea of hearing Newman’s songs being sung by anyone but Newman himself struck me as somewhat uninviting. I feared that the concept of putting such material into that dreary format known as the jukebox musical seemed vulgarly commercial. So, of course, I was happily turned around by the expertise on hand. That Jack Viertel, whose idea it was, could take his work so seriously and that your director, Jerry Zaks, could shape the work so artfully, thanks not only to his cast, but to the state-of-the-art scenic design by Stephan Olson and the vivid projections of Mark I. Rosenthal which allowed Randy Newman to be part of the event that was paying such heartfelt homage to his artistry.  Oh, yes, did I mention the dandy musical orchestrations and arrangements by Michael Roth and David O (not to mention the orchestra itself for playing them so niftily)?  I’ve been a fan of Newman’s since the sixties when his album “12 Songs” – along with Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” and Van Dyke Parks’s “Song Cycle” – seemed like the direction that contemporary music should be headed, a hothouse antidote to the popular music of the time. And, despite my familiarity with his music through the years, I left the theater last night wanting to listen to all of his albums again. He was treated with the respect due him. It was not, thank heaven, just another jukebox musical.

And I haven’t even mentioned the wonderful things that were done with “Better Off Dead” or “Rollin’.” What more can I say? It was a thrillingly entertaining evening of theater. And I hope everybody in search of a good time gets to see it and revel in its pleasures. And while I confess, Mr. McKean, that the idea of a one-man show with you singing Randy Newman’s songs would be my idea of theatrical heaven, I couldn’t be happier than I am with Harps and Angels. Thank you. And everyone else involved in this terrific show. Enough. My gushing might diminish my credentials as a critic.

Yours in admiration,

Harvey Perr

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

photos by Craig Schwartz

Harps and Angels
scheduled to close December 22 at time of publication
for tickets, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/

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