Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Look Back at 'Over & Over'

In my previous post, which was primarily a review of the new production of The Happy Time at Signature Theatre in Arlington, I mentioned in passing -- as did a cheeky Fred Ebb -- Over & Over, the musical version of Thornton Wilder's 1940s play, The Skin of Our Teeth. Signature produced the world premiere of Over & Over in early 1999. Always a troubled show, it had virtually no life after Signature, although a few attempts were made to improve it, even changing its title (to All About Us and reverting, at one point, to The Skin of Our Teeth).

The Skin of Our Teeth had a distinguished pedigree. The original production was directed by Elia Kazan and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (There were no Tony Awards in those days.) The original cast included Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina, Florence Eldridge and Fredric March as Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus, and Montgomery Clift as Henry. Other roles were played by E. G. Marshall, Morton Da Costa (later a distinguished stage and motion picture director), Lizabeth Scott, and Dickie -- the future Dick -- Van Patten. There was every reason to believe that a musical version of Wilder's play would be an artistic and commercial success. While optimism remains, Over & Over -- whatever its iteration -- has essentially been abandoned.

Why this turned out to be the case is explained, at least in part, in my review of the show, which appeared in The Metro Herald (Alexandria, Virginia) on February 12, 1999:

Over & Over: Wilder 3, Adapters 1
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

There have been attempts to adapt three of Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Thornton Wilder's works to the musical stage. The first attempt was made in the mid-50s, with Our Town -- including a television adaptation featuring Frank Sinatra as the Stage Manager. It disappeared without a trace. Another musical adaptation of Our Town, called Grover's Corners (by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, creators of The Fantasticks) has been kicking around in workshops for the past several years, but still seems not to have found its audience. The second attempt came in 1964 with Hello, Dolly!, an adaptation of Wilder's The Matchmaker (it, in turn, an adaptation of his own play The Merchant of Yonkers), which was wildly successful, becoming the longest-running musical in Broadway history before being overtaken by Fiddler on the Roof.

Now along come Arlington's Signature Theatre, the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Steel Pier), librettist Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba, Carmelina), and a cast and production team heavy with Tony-award winners and nominees. Their challenge: To adapt Wilder's 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth as the new musical Over & Over. The result: A sense that The Skin of Our Teeth defies musical adaptation.

The material is not inherently unadaptable. After all, as composer-lyricist Maury Yeston (Nine, Titanic: The Musical) has noted, the single theme that runs through every successful American musical play is "optimism in the face of adversity." This is why, he says, a man without a penny in his pocket can sing "If I Were a Rich Man," or, one might add, a little orphan girl in the midst of the Depression can sing "the sun'll come out Tomorrow." And The Skin of Our Teeth is nothing if not a play about optimism in the face of adversity. In three acts, man (in the form of the Antrobus family) confronts The Ice Age, The Flood, and The War to End All Wars. Wilder wrote his somewhat phantasmagorical, anachronistic play just as the Second World War was at its low ebb -- all of continental Europe had fallen to the Nazis, Britain was enduring the Blitz, Stalingrad was under siege, and the U.S. fleet had just been destroyed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Dark days, indeed. Yet Wilder wanted to emphasize that man had -- has -- an unmitigated capacity to endure.

So it seems that The Skin of Our Teeth has great potential as a musical play. It has colorful, eccentric characters. It has a love-match in George and Maggie Antrobus. It has voluptuous comic relief from Sabina, the maid. Yet somehow, as put together by Signature, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Granted, this is a work-in-progress, and it shows. Surely at this stage of Cabaret's gestation, audiences walked out of the theatre with puzzled expressions, too. There is a lot of promise here, but also a lot of dross.

Director Eric D. Schaeffer has inventively staged the material, and choreographer Bob Avian pulls what he can out of a score that is not particularly danceable. Yet much of Over & Over feels like a magician trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat, only to find a lot of silk handkerchiefs. Above all, the play lacks balance. It teeters one way, then another, yet never settles firmly.

For example, headliner Dorothy Loudon (who created the villainous Miss Hannigan in Annie almost a quarter-century ago) fails to live up to her obvious talents. It is clear from reading the pre-printed program that Loudon's role has been changed considerably from early rehearsals to today. She doesn't even play the role listed in the original program; instead, she has three small parts that are not particularly fitting. In Act Two, she has an amusing but gratuitous specialty number, "This Life," which describes the vicissitudes of being an aging bathing beauty -- and which hits disturbingly close to home for an actress who is clearly being retained in this cast for her marquee value, and not for her particular contribution to the success of the show.

While the play, as written, wants Sabina to be the center of attention, the true anchor, if there is one at all, is Maggie Antrobus, the matriarch played by Linda Emond. Steady, consistent, understanding, unwilling to throw away a line for a cheap laugh, Emond succeeds where the flighty (but talented) Sherie Scott fails as Sabina (in a role intended for Broadway star Bebe Neuwirth, who left during the rehearsal period in New York). Maggie's first act ballad, "He Always Comes Home to Me" clues us in on her character better than any of the other expository numbers, but more than that, it is an excellent song, similar in spirit and tone to Ragtime's "Back to Before," also sung by the Mother. Emond also sings the best single song in the show, "The Promise," in which she reminds her husband of his responsibilities and roles in life.

At the same time, David Garrison's George Antrobus is perhaps a bit too understated. While we want Mr. Antrobus to be an "Everyman," Garrison turns him into a philandering wimp, rather than the strong, confident, elected leader of the vertebrates.

Megan Lawrence is a nicely bratty Gladys Antrobus (carrying a Teletubby doll), while Jim Newman is simply malevolent as her brother, Henry (listening constantly to Marilyn Manson on his Walkman). His number, "Nice People," is biting and sardonic, and it hits hard as it should.

The current closing number, "At the Rialto" (sung by Sabina) is depressingly weak, and it is hard to grasp its connection to what comes before. The creative team simply must look for something better.

Sad to say, despite expectations to the contrary, Over & Over fails to deliver. Given the heavyweight talents behind it -- including 1998 Kennedy Center Honors recipients Kander and Ebb -- some more doctoring may save this play.

The complete run of Over & Over has been sold out since the day the box office opened. Last-minute returns and no-shows may free up seats on the day of performance. Tickets may become available during the hour before curtain. Performances continue through February 21, 1999, at the Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, near the Shirlington exit of I-395. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.

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