Sometimes a show makes me feel like I’ve stepped into the world of my grandparents. It’s not a good feeling. I thought I was living in the year 2013. I thought modern culture included Rent, Breaking Bad, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
But then along comes a production so faux-naïf and old-fashioned, I have to wonder if the last hundred years never happened. Can this be deliberate? Just a week ago I was watching Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Straz, and there wasn’t a word that felt passé or the least bit irrelevant. Then I go back a week later to see the Gershwin tribute ’S Wonderful, and I find a score of terrific songs surrounded by vapid, juvenile, toothless skits that would feel retro to a 6-year-old. Did I miss something? Aren’t we all adults here? Did Hair, Sweeney Todd, Cabaret never happen?
There are five mini-musicals making up ’S Wonderful, and four of them are set, reasonably enough, in past decades. The problem is, the writing in each sketch is insipid. In the first, a newspaper typesetter who wants to be a reporter pursues a blonde beauty who may be a thief. In another, a movie make-up artist dreams of kissing a handsome film swashbuckler. Then there’s the one about the American in Paris who falls in love with the café waitress. Each scenario is promising enough in its first few moments, but quickly the simplistic dialogue and the strange absence of adult sexuality become exasperating beyond all tolerance. Worst of all, the sketches’ silliness begins to rub off on the great Gershwin songs, so that the delightful “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” has to compete with a Hallmark greeting card of a frame story, or the stirring “I Got Rhythm” has to endure the proximity of the typesetter’s silly quest. Loving many of these songs, I found it painful to see them surrounded by so much banality. Better a straight revue — just song after song — than this cheapening mix. Better anything than two hours of clichés.
Still, the songs are there to console us for their deplorable settings. And the singers — Tia Jemison, Andrew Mauney, Kristina Huegel, Christopher Timson and Laurie Sutton — have fine voices and attractive stage presences.
Pianist and Musical Director Michael Sebastian brings us some stunning arrangements of the tunes, with unexpected reprises of certain melodies, and with snatches of Rhapsody in Blue recurring enchantingly. All the great work from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook is here: “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “The Man I Love,” “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and more. And each of the singers has a distinct personality. Sutton is the ingénue, Jemison the deep-feeling wronged woman, Mauney the can-do efficient type, Huegel the multi-competent older sister, and Timson the nerd who can build a computer (or ham radio set) out of scratch.
On Lewis Folden’s near-bare set, backed by an abstract rainbow, they belt out some of America’s best, only stopping too often to re-enter the regrettable world of the script. Director Tripp Hampton has them all hamming it up when there’s dialogue and plot — maybe he thinks this counts as irony — but organizes the singing with real flair. The many fine costumes are by Barbara Anderson.
The script, strangely enough, is uncredited in my program. But if, somewhere out there, ’S Wonderful’s writer is listening, I have this to say: Even your oldest audience deserves better than this. If you wrote at this tepid level because you didn’t want to offend the elderly theatergoers who you imagined would be attracted to a Gershwin show, you’re forgetting your history. Even men and women in their 70s now were in their 20s when the Beatles reigned. Audience members in their 60s grew up on Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, Grace Slick and Jimi Hendrix. For this generation as for those younger, sex is okay. Complicated emotions are okay. The great Gershwin songs survive because they haven’t become obsolete — because couples even today are still tempted by “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” and lovers are still pining for “Someone To Watch Over Me.” The Gershwins weren’t old fogies. Neither is the ticket-buyer, blue hair or black.
A show like ’S Wonderful makes all of theater look moribund. You can’t help but feel like putting it out of its agony.
The alternative: Be here now. In 2013. Knowing what we know.
And really, that can be kind of wonderful, too.