note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Marty … John C. Reilly
Mrs. Fusari … Cheryl McMahon
Angie … Jim Bracchitta
Tilio … Alexander Gemignani
Aunt Catherine … Marilyn Pasekoff
Virginia … Jennifer Frankel
Thomas … Evan Pappas
Patsy … Frank Aronson
Joe … Joey Sorge
Ralph … Robert Montano
Leo … Matt Ramsey
Bartender … Tim Douglas
Father DiBlasio … Michael Allosso
Bandleader … Alexander Gemignani
Mrs. Pilletti … Barbara Andres
Mary Feeney … Kate Middleton
Clara … Anne Torsiglieri
Mr. Ryan … Michael Walker
Andy … Tim Douglas
Keegan … Kent French
Rita … Shannon Hammons
Dance Hall Patron … Jim Augustine
Dance Hall Patron … Bethany J. Cassidy
I cautiously applaud the new musical MARTY, which is receiving its world premiere at the Huntington Theatre. I say “cautiously” because it’s still a fledgling and needs to be sheltered from audiences eager to swoop down upon it and declare it a Hit (at the performance I attended, the packed house rose as one and gave it a thundering ovation). If you view MARTY in the correct frame of mind --- that it’s a work-in-progress --- you should, like me, have an pleasant time, wish it well and wait to see what happens with it in the future.
MARTY, of course, is based on the 1955 award-winning film of the same title, which briefly boosted character actor Ernest Borgnine into leading man status. Paddy Chayefsky’s touching love story between Marty, a shy Italian-American butcher from the Bronx and Clara, an even shyer Irish-American schoolteacher from Brooklyn, has its place in cinematic history not only because of its realistic depiction of American postwar life, warts and all (the two leads are not glamorous; the film’s dialogue, slangy and working class) but also because it made its way in through the back door via that new medium, Television, where Rod Steiger had played Marty to great acclaim two years earlier. Librettist Rupert Holmes (THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD) is faithful to the film’s plot, locale and era (I was worried that MARTY might be updated, with the two leads singing to each other via the Internet), even though he has added a few politically-correct touches: the Playboy centerfold that Marty’s buddies drool over is bikini-clad; Clara is gingerly called a “dog” only once, I believe; and Marty’s struggle to get a kiss out of Clara (so startling in the film) is omitted altogether. Some scenes are compressed or joined together, and Marty and Clara are reunited at a street fair, but all in all, Mr. Holmes has done a good job thus far: Mrs. Pilletti will still recognize her son, and one can enjoy this MARTY as an warm-hearted comedy-drama with songs attached.
Those songs have been written by the long-standing team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, whose past successes include BYE, BYE BIRDIE and APPLAUSE (their forgotten SUPERMAN deserves to be revived --- HINT!); their latest score falls between the new (introspective numbers for Marty and Clara) and the traditional (extroversive ones for the supporting cast). At this time, MARTY’s strength rests on the latter numbers (i.e., the supporting cast is carrying the show) --- there are no hit songs (yet), but how refreshing to hear TUNES once again! “Saturday Night Girl”, sung by Marty’s buddies pondering said centerfold, is a snappy number from a sunny WEST SIDE STORY; the scratchy “Niente Da Fare” is a comic turn between Marty’s sweet mother and her sour sister they’re forced to take in; “What Else Could I Do?”, sung by Mrs. Pilleti as she ponders her lonely future should Marty get married, is a tender, aching ballad; the fluttering, wing-like orchestrations for the ensemble “Recessional” evoke the very sound of musicals from the late ‘50s-early ‘60s; best of all, the show’s set piece --- the Stardust Ballroom sequence where Marty and Clara first meet --- is an extended number where interlocking lives, dialogue, lyrics and dance beautifully shortcut and propel the plot forward, all bound together by the band leader’s crooning “Why Not You and Me?” (here’s one for the Hit Parade).
And then, there’s Marty and Clara….
Both of these characters step off the silver screen with a built-in handicap; a handicap I call Sally Bowles Syndrome. In CABARET, Sally is a second-rate singer, doomed to remain in seedy dives, yet audiences would not tolerate a second-rate singer playing her, resulting in much winking all around when a first-rate singer is cast. The essence of Marty and Clara lies in their homeliness (in both senses of the word) --- here are two of God’s creatures not meant to sing or dance; if they’re made to sing like an angel and dance like a dream, you may wonder why they have trouble getting a date on Saturday night. Messrs. Strouse and Adams’ intentions are good: keeping their leads as plain, awkward people --- Marty and Clara’s voices are kept firmly in the middle register, nor are they made to dance --- but they don’t allow their misfits a chance to bloom, either. Marty in particular becomes his own Greek chorus, stepping out of each scene to comment in song on what has just taken place (and a little of that goes a long way, fellas). Do Messrs. Strouse and Adams fear that today’s audiences will snicker or groan over the conventions of yesterday’s musicals (courtship; romance; virginal heroines)? Those audiences who love musicals accept --- and expect --- a certain amount of fantasy in terms of style and execution, which goes back to the suspension of disbelief that I wrote about regarding THE WOMAN IN BLACK (Stoneham Theatre) and THE GIG (Lyric Stage). MARTY has one ace up its sleeve which Messrs. Strouse and Adam have yet to drawn upon: the audience secretly WANTS Marty and Clara to become beautiful, however brief the transformation --- and the best, the only way is through song and dance.
At the close of the Starlight Ballroom number, Marty sees Clara back to her brownstone; after they agree to see each other again, Clara goes inside, Marty turns to the audience to sing the anthem, “She Sees Who I Am”, and the curtain falls on Act One. Frankly, there’s no magic in this crucial scene (in the film, it climaxes with Marty running happily up and down the darkened street like a puppy); forgive my boldness, but this is where Marty and Clara should lift off into song and dance --- and the song could be based on Marty’s famous line: “Dogs like us…we ain’t such dogs as we think we are.” The song could be a solo for Marty, convincing/wooing Clara as he grows in confidence and she responds in kind, and then, THEN, magic: they dance. REALLY dance just like in the movies --- and THEN they say goodnight after coming down from the clouds. It’s corny and has been done a zillion times, but I’ll bet anything that an audience will not laugh --- that proposed dance would be a symbolic affirmation of compatibility (and Marty and Clara could reprise it for their Act Two reunion --- but danced in public, before the astonished/delighted eyes of family and friends).
But can such a number be done using the current performers? The jury is still out on that one. On the night I attended, Anne Torsiglieri’s Clara sounded parched and was heavy on the vibrato whenever she sang; on the plus side, Ms. Torsiglieri is a pleasing comedienne --- yes, that’s right: comedienne, for Mr. Holmes has given his schoolteacher a dry sense of humor, especially about herself (the film’s Clara is a bit of a drip). For some reason I picture Clara being played by a dancer, not a singer (after all, Marty does most of the talking and Clara does most of the listening); a few dances for Clara --- solo and with Marty --- would speak volumes in terms of what beats within her maiden breast compared to the empty music that Messrs. Strouse and Adams have composed for her. John C. Reilly (Marty) is a sturdy “everyman” actor but not a musical one (he is very much Mr. Holmes’ child); he has a good, solid baritone which he uses more to declaim with than to sing, but he is physically awkward during his many solos. Marty, of course, can lumber about till the bears come home, but the actor portraying him must not --- there is a difference --- and I always saw Mr. Reilly, not Marty, struggling to express himself in song. My disbelief sadly remained unsuspended.
Since MARTY is still a work-in-progress, phrases like “steals the show” would be out of place here --- but Barbara Andres (Mrs. Pilletti) and Marilyn Pasekoff (Aunt Catherine) come close to doing just that, being comfortably at home in both spoken word and song (though Mrs. Pilletti’s sudden acceptance of Clara as her daughter-in-law is hard to swallow, even in a musical), and Alexander Gemignani provides the right caressing sound as the band leader. Astonishingly, many of the supporting actors get little or nothing to sing --- including the always-excellent Kent French, cast as the handsome heel who ditches Clara at the dance. Had Messrs. Strouse and Adams given his character a snazzy song of his own (say, a wolf number sung to the woman he’s pursuing), Mr. French would have unlocked his silver pipes and given Beantown something worth standing up and cheering about.
Mark Brokaw’s direction is serviceable, going from A to B to C; Rob Ashford’s choreography harkens back to the days when Jerome Robbins ruled and dance was a celebration, not a workout at the gym; and I enjoyed watching Robert Jones’ sections of scenery slide in and out during interludes, some with actors attached, in the same slick manner of countless musicals in the past.
As it stands, it would be as cruel to damn MARTY just as it would be foolish to praise it, for it still needs work. If you must cheer, cheer for what MARTY could become: an old-fashioned musical with plenty of heart (remember heart?). I would be curious (and fascinated) to see what happens to Marty, Clara and their story should they ever make it to the Great White Way --- and I’d buy the CD, too.
So, uh, what ARE you doin’ on Saturday night?