Manhattan Madcaps of 1924
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 9, 2006
Manhattan Madcaps of 1924 is a nice idea (it's the brainchild of Symphony Space artistic director Isaiah Sheffer): to create a brand new old-fashioned-style musical comedy around some of the New York songs of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. And indeed, revisiting such seldom-heard charmers as "Manhattan," "The Heart is Quicker than the Eye," and "Any Old Place with You" is a delight: what team could match Rodgers & Hart for smart, snappy, singable theatre tunes?
But, unfortunately, the songs notwithstanding, Manhattan Madcaps is less than satisfactory as an entertainment. Sheffer's book (written, bizarrely, under the obviously fake pseudonym Jerzy Turnpike) is much more simple-minded than anything Rodgers & Hart ever contributed to; Annette Jolles's direction is largely pedestrian; and the eight-member cast, with just one exception, fail to do much more than competently deliver material that mostly deserves much more.
The story concerns two couples who meet at a train station in Oklahoma, all of them bound for the Big Apple. Casey is a likeable New Yorker whose background and motives remain somewhat mysterious; he falls for Cassie, a rodeo performer who wants to work at Madison Square Garden but will settle (somewhat incongruously) for a job at Claremont Stables. Gary and Gracie are young small-townies who have decided to elope to the big city in order to escape her domineering mother. Upon arrival in New York, they're joined by two more couples: Jeanette and Johnny (both actors; she wants to be a big star, he wants to make serious art in Greenwich Village) and Manhattan Mamie and Stonewall Moskowitz, who are improbably trying to get Russian immigrant Stonewall elected mayor.
The plot follows the four couples through ups and downs as they try to cope with life in NYC and follow their dreams. Some of the sequences are charming, as when Stonewall and Mamie take the others on an impromptu tour of New York's neighborhoods to the clever words and music of "Disgustingly Rich", "All Dressed Up (Spic 'N Spanish)," and "At the Roxy Music Hall." Other interpolations are less comfortable: why would Cassie, who has never been to New York, sing a song like "Way Out West on West End Avenue," for example? And the whole notion of setting the show in 1924—a year before Rodgers & Hart had their first Broadway score—is a strange one: many of the songs are clearly from the '30s, with references to Eleanor Roosevelt, Clark Gable, and the Rockettes that just don't parse in the roaring twenties. The ending is inevitably happy, and to several choruses of "Manhattan" all four pairs of lovebirds end the show properly mated.
Obviously the songs are what matter here, rather than the book, and most are welcome to hear, either again or, in many cases, for the first time. Among the lesser-known gems: "I Gotta Get Back to New York" (from the Al Jolson film Hallelujah, I'm a Bum), "Nobody's Heart" (from the Ray Bolger musical By Jupiter), and "Give it Back to the Indians" (from Babes in Arms). Sheffer has also worked in all three of the discarded versions of the melody that eventually became "Blue Moon"—finding them all in one score is a treat. Even the one outright misfire is worth hearing, if only because it's a true rarity: a bad Larry Hart lyric. The song is called "Stonewall Moskowitz March" and it's Hart doing a bad copy of Ira Gershwin whimsy (it's from the flop Betsy; Irving Caesar is credited as co-lyricist).
But Jolles's dull staging, Regina Larkin's unimaginative choreography, and the mostly listless performances ultimately make Madcaps a bit of a chore to sit through, even at just a shade longer than an hour-and-a-quarter. The one exception among the cast is Nick Verina, who is both matinee idol-handsome and appealingly big-voiced. His performance of "Spring is Here," a sweetly melancholy number from I Married an Angel, was, for me, the show's highlight.
Musical theatre diehards may want to renew their acquaintance with this collection of lesser-known songs from one of musical comedy's great writing teams. But I think most others will wonder what all the fuss was about in this indifferently-produced show.