SUBMISSION DATE: JUNE 22, 2000
Composer Randy Newman loves to grate against the grain of society. His songs often set gritty lyrics to sunny melodies, reflecting his jarringly humorous, slyly sarcastic view of America. So one might have hoped that a musical culled from his huge canon would also be amusingly off-kilter. But “The Education of Randy Newman” isn’t much of a musical at all. It’s a revue, comprising some 40+ songs, with no dialogue, and a loose chronology that supposedly traces Newman’s socio-political evolution and life-changing move from the faux gentility of New Orleans to the (faux everything) wilds of L.A., the two cities that helped shape his mentality and his music.
The title and conceit were supposedly derived from the ground-breaking turn-of-last-century autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams.” But there are only vague and oblique references to writing that don’t really work, and not all the songs fit neatly into the predetermined (semi-autobiographical) structure.
In the first act, a songwriter (the Newman alter-ego) is reduced to a zhlubby observer, as Southern life goes on around him. In the 2nd act (after the move to L.A.), he’s more proactive, falling in and out of a marriage or two and making a big splash in the music biz. Except for big, obvious events, the Synopsis contains far more detail than would ever be perceived by just watching the show.
The singing is good, with several knockout numbers by Jennifer Leigh Warren, with Gregg Henry most closely capturing the composer/lyricist’s sardonic style. The vocal arrangements and orchestrations (by co-conceiver Michael Roth) are terrific, but the staging (Myron Johnson) is generally static and often repetitive, and for a revue, the seven performers are surprisingly less attractive and less multi-talented than one might hope. So choreography is pretty much out of the question.
Mostly, this is a great initiation or re-introduction to the spirited songs of Randy Newman, and this format, given little else but slides to look at, forces you to pay close attention to those often chilling and unsettling lyrics. From “Rednecks” to “Fat Boys,” Newman takes no prisoners; yet he obviously loves his disappointing and frustrating homeland, and his cockeyed optimism invariably peeks through.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.