KPBS AIRDATE: October 4, 1995
(MUSIC, under and up: “PASS ON OVER”)
God is everywhere, especially at the La Jolla Playhouse. Invoked on both stages, he’s elusive in the soul-searching one-man play, “An Almost Holy Picture.” But he’s an omnipresent, gospel-singing boss-man in Randy Newman’s satirical new musical comedy, “Faust.”
Warner Brothers released an all-star album of “Faust” to coincide with the world premiere. James Taylor sings the role of the Lord, in a smug and smirky kind of way. But onstage, Ken Page is a far more sanguine and benevolent deity, a golf-playing executive who’s a bit bored with his beatific surroundings, and a bit out of touch with his constituents.
Actually, a lot of the CD’s edgy nastiness is toned down in the new production, where director Michael Greif goes more for the funny bone than the jugular. But, it’s written by Randy Newman, so there’s still plenty of bite and bile. On the recording, he takes aim at surprise targets such as Buddhists and Canadians, but the show goes for easy marks, like lawyers and Protestants. (Actually, the addition of the March of the Protestants is a hoot, replete with plaid and polyester, prim women and gun-toting men).
A few good songs are lost, a few new ones are added, and the singing and orchestrations are superb — as good as the high-profile studio versions.
Overall, the score is great (despite all those abrupt, Newman-esque, tempo-changing musical switchbacks). It’s a mad and memorable romp through a million genres, from honky-tonk to hard rock, from blues to ballads to soft shoe. I’ll bet anything you walk out singing something. And that’s heavenly in musical theater these days.
Speaking of which, back at the pearly gates, the Devil comes to pay the Lord a visit, offering a wager — of one immortal soul — in order to recapture his place in Paradise . The victim, chosen at random to be tempted by Heaven and Hell, is one Henry Faust, third year freshman at Notre Dame — a monstrous, guitar-wielding, irredeemable gen-X nihilist.
So far so good. But then things go awry, as the poorly motivated subplots, including side-trips to Costa Rica and sentimental songs about post-war England , start to muck things up. The problem is that Newman seems to have spent far more time on the score than the book. Every song can pretty well stand on its own, but not all of them reflect the characters or advance the story.
One plus-minus change from the CD was my personal favorite, “Feels Like Home.” On tape, Bonnie Raitt sings to the Devil.
(MUSIC up, “FEELS LIKE HOME”)
Gorgeous song, but it made no sense like that. Onstage, it’s an apt duet, between the degenerate Faust and the sweetly doomed Margaret. Right choice thematically, but wrong to pick up the tempo, and lose the haunting beauty. Kurt Deutsch, by the way, is perfect as Faust, in voice and comic timing. And both female love interests, played by Bellamy Young and Sherie Rene Scott, are charming and talented.
Center stage, of course, from Goethe and ever onward, is the Devil, who invariably gets all the good lines. David Garrison, with plenty of on and Off-Broadway credits, is better known as neighborly Steve Rhodes on “Married… With Children.” He’s a damn funny devil. Randy Newman himself sang the role on the album, and what he says about the character goes for the writer himself and the show: despite a need for some fixing-up here and there, (MUSIC up, RANDY SINGS) “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.