TIMES OF SAN DIEGO
Get out your bell-bottoms and tie-dye. Nilsson is back. Well, not Harry Nilsson himself (he died in 1994), but his songs, in the world premiere tribute, “Everybody’s Talkin’: The Music of Harry Nilsson.”
The singer/songwriter was highly regarded by other musicians, but he was mostly a studio guy himself, recording 17 albums. He never did concerts or tours. So, although he wrote innumerable songs for movies and TV, unless you were a fan, you’re likely to find, as I did, that many of the 50 or so songs and excerpts in this new show are unfamiliar. In fact, one of Nilsson’s signature songs, the one the revue is named for and the one he won one of his two Grammys for (it was featured prominently in the 1969 film, “Midnight Cowboy”), he recorded but didn’t write (credit goes to Fred Neil). Still, the New York Post listed “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” as #51 in the Top 100 Best Cover Songs of All Time. Nilsson has been described as “the most famously anonymous composer and performer” of his time. Maybe this show will change that, but I doubt it.
None of his extraordinary life experiences appear in the show; neither does the title tune. It’s tacked on as an addendum or encore, after the performers have said ‘Good night.’
Nilsson’s other two most famous songs are highlighted to good effect. “One” bookends the revue, which doesn’t have a plot per se, but song after song, loosely follows a relationship: the meet-up, the getting together, the coming apart. Loneliness at beginning and end. “Coconut” (where ‘you put the lime’) a goofy novelty number from 1971, is played amusingly as a seduction.
The big draw in the show – conceived by popular locals Steve Gunderson and Javier Velasco, is its two Tony Award-winning stars: Alice Ripley (“Next to Normal”) and Gregory Jbara (“Billy Elliot”). In truth, the two other singers, locals Kürt Norby and musical director/pianist/keyboardist Korrie Paliotto are every bit as good.
Norby, whose smooth, flexible tenor soars in this show, never leaves the stage, though Ripley and Jbara do. Oddly, even during intermission, they never change costumes. Hers is a short, ‘70s print dress; his is timeless jeans and an out-shirt. Both have jackets that come on and off. Less than inspired costuming coming from a big-time Broadway designer, Gregg Barnes.
The set (Sean Fanning) is a series of swirling ramps (which were at times difficult to navigate, forcing the actors to look down or, as was the case on the night I was there, to trip). The large screen upstage projections are a cross between ‘70s psychedelia and a lava lamp. There’s a stoner sensibility to many of the songs, which makes some of them sound dated.
The first act, the ‘coming together’ part of the relationship between Ripley and Jbara’s characters, though it featured the show’s few comic numbers, feels turgid. It’s hard to relate to or connect with these characters, who fare better in the second act, when they’re miserable and singing ballad after ballad about love, loss, pain, anguish, anguish, despair and regret.
There are some evocative images in the lyrics (“something to cause your mouth to rush to mine” from “Something True” was my favorite); there are some aching emotions and pleasant pop melodies. Most don’t seem like songs for the ages, though.
Both Ripley and Jbara are excellent performers who really know how to interpret and put over a song. He has a beautifully supple bass/baritone. She’s a great belter, but her smoky, throaty alto is not always as orotund, or orally resonant, as it could be. Norby is in superb voice, and he has an easy manner onstage. There’s nothing exciting about watching any of them, though Ripley and Jbara let a lot of emotions play across their faces. The staging (Velasco) is fairly static; what moves there are, often involving stools and standing mics, are repetitive.
The band is fantastic (five ace musicians including Paliotto; Jessie Audelo on woodwinds; PJ Bove on guitar; Isaac Cross, bass/percussion; and Dave Rumley, drums/vibraphone). Special kudos to Audelo for his masterful playing of flute, clarinet and sax. And at one point, Paliotto, turning from piano to keyboard, evokes highly convincing violin pizzicato.
The most outstanding aspect of the production is Gunderson’s splendid musical arrangements, bracketing or melding songs, or setting them in counterpoint. Stunning work. But you kinda have to love Nilsson and/or revues to really grok this show. The singer/songwriter’s life story would have provided an excellent context for showcasing his music. But that’s another show for another day.
“EVERYBODY’S TALKIN’: THE MUSIC OF HARRY NILSSON” runs through 6/21 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza
Performances are Wednesday at7pm, Thursday -Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 4pm, Sunday at 2pm and 7pm
Tickets ($18-$75) are available at 619-544-1000 ; www.sdrep.org
Running time: 2 hrs.
©2015 PAT LAUNER