Friday, March 27, 2015

Theater Review: Jule Styne’s ‘Hazel Flagg,’ From Musicals Tonight!

Five years ago, in a review of Paint Your Wagon, I promised to see another production soon from the company that staged it, Musicals Tonight! It just goes to show that you should never believe promises: I didn't make it back for half a decade.

All this time, however, the company was never really off my radar. I still hunted for opportunities to see one of its shows from the Golden Age of the Broadway musical at affordable prices.

This past weekend, following one last winter blast, I spotted an opening. It was not only convenient because of time, but also because of location. Mel Miller’s company had moved from its home the last time I saw it-- McGinn/Cazale Theatre, at Broadway and 76th Street—down to Theater Row, at the Lion Theatre, on West 42nd St. between 9th and 10th Avenues. That meant I could take the A train without switching, get off at the Port Authority terminal, and walk just a couple of blocks west.

Prices are lower for Musicals Tonight because expenses are lower. I don’t mean just star salaries, scenery (evoked here by a change in paintings hung on a wall between scenes) or costumes, but also advertising costs. Not only have I not seen productions promoted in The New York Times, but even Time Out New York. (I heard of the company first through a direct-mail brochure. Presumably, my name was on the mailing list of one of the New York City theater companies whose shows I’ve attended over the years.)

There are the warhorses of musical theater—notably, the entire corpus of Rodgers and Hammerstein, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Company—and all too many others that have ended up in a shadowland, little noticed or remembered. Companies such as Musicals Tonight and the far better capitalized Goodspeed Opera House and Encores, then, serve an excellent purpose in reminding theatergoers—and theater professionals—of the unknown riches lurking in this latter group.

Like On the Twentieth Century, the much-acclaimed Cy Coleman musical just mounted by the Roundabout Theatre Company, Hazel Flagg is based on a classic 1930s screwball comedy scripted by Ben Hecht (in this case, the 1937 film Nothing Sacred). 

But, while On the Twentieth Century made few concessions to popular taste, Hazel Flagg, despite the fact that Hecht adapted his own screenplay, has watered down the cynicism of its source material. The movie’s male lead, reporter Wally Cook (played by Fredric March), is so in the doghouse with his male editor that he’s on the obituary desk; the musical’s Wally is merely a little-read political reporter. While the Dr. Enoch Downer of the stage is clearly incompetent, his counterpart on film is also an inveterate drunk.

Symbolic of all of this is one scene. In the movie, Wally has barely set foot in Hazel’s Vermont small town before a young boy bites him on the ankle. The deletion of this scene in the musical seems emblematic of the material’s transition from screen to stage: it has lost some of its satiric, if not literal, bite.

What the musical gained in the process is a mildly amused tone that sees something sunny even in those characters (nearly all of them) out for the main chance. It’s typified by Laura Carew, publisher of Everywhere Magazine, who urges on her staff a change in editorial direction involving “A Little More Heart”—and a little less brains.

Some songs feel as if they could stand independently apart from this show:  “How Do You Speak to an Angel?”, “The World is Beautiful Today,” and “Money Burns a Hole in My Pocket.” It is possible that some tunes might have originated with other projects, given composer Jule Styne’s penchant for recycling songs (e.g., Gypsy’s “You’ll Never Get Away from Me” was originally written for the 1957 TV musical Ruggles of Red Gap and “Everything’s Coming up Roses” was  conceived as “I’m Betwixt, I’m Between” earlier for High-Button Shoes).

The songs here work best in the hands of the two major female performers. Hazel, we find out early on, is a liar—a woman who, after being told of her misdiagnosed terminal condition, does not disclose this fact to Everywhere, which is fulfilling her wish to "have fun" by sponsoring an all-expenses tour of New York, because she is so desperate to see a wider world than Stoneyhead. 

But Savannah Frazier, with a lovely voice and a wide-eyed-in-Babylon look, makes it impossible to dislike her. And, matching the skill set of her movie predecessor in the role, Carole Lombard, she displays a flair for comedy, whether going on a drunken spree shortly after arriving in New York or imagining herself as a Parisian temptress in “Laura de Maupassant.”

As Laura, Annie Edgerton takes over a role played onscreen by the great, growly male character actor Walter Connolly, endowing it less with ferocity than with sharp, cool authority. Possessed of one of the most interesting musical backgrounds among the cast (singer of “The Star Spangled Banner” for 20 major league baseball teams!), she is ideally suited to put over the likes of “Make the People Cry” (Laura’s advice to her staff) and “Everybody Loves to Take a Bow.”

Among the males, Rob Lorey imparts a Jimmy Walker-style panache to his character, The Mayor, and to his big number, “Every Street’s a Boulevard in Old New York.” As Wally, Jason Mills easily handles the vocal requirements of his leading-man role, but you sense that, like his character, he longs for so much more. Bradlee Laight brings a nifty soft-shoe act to Willie’s dance number with Hazel.

The casting of Jody Cook requires suspended disbelief: How can a man described by Wally as a “New England quack” speak with such a pronounced Southern accent? Accept that and you’ll thoroughly enjoy Cook's portrayal of a querulous small-town medic continually sputtering over the mess that his young female patient (and, of course, his own misdiagnosis) has gotten him.

Hazel Flagg, running through March 29, will never take pride of place in Styne’s work over Gypsy or Funny Girl, but it remains a pleasant diversion for a couple of hours.

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