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Arthur Laurents is pretty much an ideal match for Jule Styne. The writer/director and the composer (who are collectively responsible for most of the key elements in such iconic Broadway smashes as West Side Story, Gypsy, Funny Girl, and La Cage aux Folles) both do brash very well and brassy even better, but, oddly, they do wistful best of all.
Hallelujah, Baby!, the energetically earnest musical flop about race relations that they wrote together in 1967, which Laurents has now reworked and revived in miniature at Arena Stage, has a lot of brash, and a bit of brassy, and a moment or two of wistful that might just make you fall in love with old-fashioned musical comedy all over again. The proportions aren’t quite right—and with Styne having died in 1994, it may be too late to ever get them precisely calibrated—but I suspect they’re a lot righter at Arena than they were in the show’s original Broadway incarnation. The brashness (mostly political) has mellowed with the years; the brassiness (mostly musical) works about as winningly as ever, and when wistful takes over, the evening’s pretty heavenly.
Take the moment at the top of the second act, when African-American leading lady Georgina, her black boyfriend Clem, and her white boyfriend Harvey all realize simultaneously that they’re not connecting. They’ve just been having a heated argument (ostensibly about racial politics but really about relationships), and as Georgina faces front to sing about the annoyance of “Talking to Yourself,” Laurents lowers the stage temperature to suit the rueful, fetching ballad Styne has provided. The melody is an earworm in a minor key—one that gets picked up a few stanzas later by the two men in a roundelay that’s guaranteed to haunt you out to the parking lot and beyond—and as Laurents lines up his three principals in soft, achingly separate pools of light, he’s giving you an indelible stage image filled with yearning and regret.
That’s one of several deliberately quiet hallelujah moments in a show that has generally tried for huzzahs of a more hats-in-the-air sort. The original Broadway production had TV celeb/recording artist Leslie Uggams showering stardust all over it. But by most accounts, the material—a decade-by-decade charting of racial progress from mammy stereotypes to the heyday of the civil-rights movement—sounded strident and hectoring when belted to the rafters. At Arena, Laurents has both trimmed and amplified, jettisoning spectacle and cutting the cast to nine to give the script’s more modest moments room to breathe, and breathe they do.
Back in 1967, critics tended to blame Laurents’ book for the show’s failure. Too earnest, said some; too didactic, said others. And the script played into such criticisms with a tricky conceptual device—Georgina and the others don’t age as they traipse through decades of social change—that made the plot seem repetitive and a tad obvious. It chronicled the rise of a budding singing sensation from being an actual maid in 1900, to playing a maid onstage in 1910, to dancing as a Congo Cutie in 1920, to winning a solo spot in a black revue in 1930, and so on—each time taking a step forward, only to be pushed a half-step back by racism. Her relationships—with her fireplug of a mother, her similarly held-back childhood sweetheart, who ends up a civil-rights activist, and a white liberal benefactor, who keeps offering her jobs—followed a similar pattern, and by intermission the audience could see every plot twist coming.
Still, if Hallelujah, Baby! was more intent on lecturing audiences than such previous Styne smashes as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Bells Are Ringing, the composer’s score was no less tuneful and propulsive than usual, and it was augmented by the clever lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Shows have run for years with far less to recommend them, but Hallelujah, Baby!, viewed in an era of civil-rights turmoil as a treatise on race relations masquerading as entertainment, barely eked out nine months, closing before it won the Best Musical Tony in a weak season.
Obviously, a few things have happened since then, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. less than four months after the Broadway closing, which pretty much squelched the show’s touring prospects; in the years since, it has rarely been produced. But Laurents has long felt that it didn’t get a fair shake initially, and Arena and its production partner, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., have now given him a shot at fixing it. He’s eliminated some songs (including two that fleshed out Clem, the principal black male character), reordered others, and reinstated a cautiously optimistic Styne anthem called “When the Weather’s Better” that was cut during the show’s pre-Broadway tryout, threading it through the evening to provide a sort of musical spine, as was originally intended. Laurents has also made a halfhearted stab at bringing the story up to date in an oddly perfunctory closing sequence that finds Georgina being insulted at the present-day White House—a clumsily set-up scene that concludes the evening more awkwardly than is either wise or necessary.
But mostly he’s been clever about addressing weaknesses and giving a showbizzy gloss to the proceedings on a Jerome Sirlin set that seems intended as a curtained variation on the concert setting that freed up that other onetime flop, Chicago, in its 1996 Broadway revival. This show also centers on the upward mobility provided by stardom, and with a center-stage band lurking behind a retractable screen on which iconic images—an iron stove, workers picking cotton, a Harlem streetscape, fireworks—can be projected, the leading lady has a plausible showcase for her talents. Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes are sharp and character-defining, from the faded apron and head scarf Georgina wears as a maid to the white satin number with crimson lining that she sports once she’s made a name for herself.
And the performances are at least as sharp and focused as the design work. Suzzanne Douglas has the pipes and the looks to make Georgina’s rise from budding chorine to stardom persuasive, and if she ornaments numbers to the point that their melodies are sometimes obscured, well, if any song can stand up to a little vocal embroidery, a Styne song can. Curtiss I’ Cook makes Georgina’s childhood sweetie, Clem, an appealing lunk in early scenes, a savvy political operator later. And he’s nicely matched by Stephen Zinnato, whose reedy baritone and laid-back charm go a long way toward humanizing a role that could almost be played with a “white liberal” sign around the neck. As a mother figure who graduates from Mammy to Momma, the redoubtable Ann Duquesnay is broadly sardonic, sharply comic, and perfectly happy to steal the show briefly from the star-in-training she’s supposed to be so devoted to. She does it in a shimmying ripsnorter of a second-act spotlight number called “I Don’t Know Where She Got It” that’s a nifty recycling of the mama-does-it-better notion that Styne had previously set to music in Gypsy (“Rose’s Turn”) and Funny Girl (“Who Taught Her Everything?”).
That theme, running from show to show, suggests a possible fix for the one aspect of Hallelujah, Baby! that really needs fixing if the show is to have a further life. A musical that spends 16 songs and two hours chronicling 60 years of racial history, but then skips past 40 years of assassinations, riots, and hiphop revolutions in a two-minute dialogue scene, is necessarily going to seem a trifle imbalanced. There needs to be a more measured march to the present, and there need to be songs in that march. Perhaps they could be cadged from other Styne scores, much as the song list for the 1930 musical Girl Crazy was beefed up with ditties from other Gershwin shows when it became Crazy for You in 1992. Adolph Green’s daughter, Amanda Green, is already credited with additional lyrics for the Hallelujah, Baby! revival, and they’re pretty seamlessly integrated with the originals. Although it’s probably not a good idea to requisition such identifiable Styne anthems as “Don’t Rain on My Parade” or “People” to bring Georgina up to an era when black stars suffer more than white ones when there are “wardrobe malfunctions,” there’s no reason a lesser-known ditty from, say, Subways Are for Sleeping or High Button Shoes couldn’t be tweaked and pressed into service.
Just a thought. Meanwhile, the score being sung at the Kreeger Theater offers Broadway aficionados ample reason for cheer, if not actual hallelujahs.CP