KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 30, 1998
It’s officially the end of summer, and in its season playoffs, the Old Globe got three times at bat: they knocked one clear out of the park, then they hit a line drive for a solid double. But the last time at the plate, the theater struck out. Let me explain. “Romeo and Juliet” was a heart-stopping homerun, or as Shakespeare would say, “a palpable hit.” “The Old Settler” may not have rounded all the bases, but it’s an unequivocal crowd-pleaser. But alas, “Paramour,” a world premiere musical, is a clean miss.
All the major players are stars, each with an impressive batting average: from librettist/lyricist Joe Masteroff, to composer Howard Marren, to director Joseph Hardy and lead actor Len Cariou. So how did they all whiff? Well, first off, even though Masteroff has been coveting the piece since the 1950s, when he first saw its source — Jean Anouilh’s “Waltz of the Toreadors”– maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to musicalize a totally misogynist play that heartily advocates adultery, disdains marriage and demeans women — no matter how nimbly and satirically. So, though a lot of the humor and wit comes from the (toned-down) original, the laughs engendered are often reluctant.
Worse than that, the piece hasn’t established a consistent tone. At times, it’s played for farce, and at other times, it takes itself ridiculously seriously. The background, dancing Greek chorus/quartet is in a different show from what’s going on foreground. The Valkyrie, fright-wigged wife doesn’t go with the cardboard doctor or the tottering drunk monk, and the silly daughters don’t fit with the earnest secretary and the no-nonsense maid. Only Amanda Naughton as the (unconsummated) mistress of the title, captures ideally the intended mood and spirit; she is sly and witty, understated and funny. The rest are good singers, who may act — or overact.
The story of the blustery, lecherous old General who can’t face his hypochondriacal wife, his ugly offspring or his advancing age, is fraught with loves lost and found, suicides attempted and failed. The pace is excruciating, and although there are many plot twists, the dialogue seems somehow predictable. The music is dusty, old-fashioned and uninteresting, though the orchestra is excellent. Masteroff’s lyrics are clever, but he’s nowhere near his personal best; this is no “Cabaret” or “She Loves Me.” And though it’s similar in style and theme, this is certainly not “A Little Night Music.”
The show’s look is aptly elegant; though the lighting is uninspired, Ralph Funicello’s set is a delightfully fanciful pavilion in blues and mauves. Even the costumes are problematic; though they’re quite attractive, they appear cumbersome and awkward for almost all the women. Speaking of which, no one onstage moves particularly well, which is unfortunate when waltz rhythms run through the piece. In short, the show has little to recommend it. For a much more enjoyable evening of theater, go next door and see “The Old Settler.”
Now this production is a sheer delight. The story, set in Harlem, 1943, concerns two middle-aged African American sisters, a divorcée and a spinster (which is another term for “an old settler,” defined in the play as “a woman pushin’ 40 that ain’t never been married and doesn’t have any prospects”). There’s a lot of conflict between them, which masks a lot of love. But when Bess, the old settler, takes in a handsome young boarder, havoc, love and discord ensue. Here, unlike “Paramour,” the issues of May-December romance are poignant; they engender empathy, not contempt. And we get depth here, too; beneath the down-home language and quippy dialogue, there’s also an undertone of subtle, Northern-style bigotry.
These are characters we come to care about, lovingly portrayed by an excellent cast. Juanita Jennings and Roz Ryan play off each other beautifully, conveying, in painful and poignant ways, the realities of a devoted but sometimes difficult sib relationship. Derrick Demetrius Parker is appropriately ingenuous as the young man, and Sandra Daley is convincing as his long-lost girlfriend, a slutty and manipulative little tail-shaker. The scenic design is gorgeously detailed; the costumes, sound and lighting are perfect. John Henry Redwood won several playwriting awards in 1994 for this touching charmer, and director Seret Scott does it justice. This is the vibrant, enchanting, engaging experience that theater ought to be.
The Globe’s next season has a pretty impressive lineup; here’s hoping for more solid hits.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.