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Considering the troubles that plagued Over and Over on its way to last week’s belated opening night, Signature Theatre’s musicalized Skin of Our Teeth sure gets off to a confident start. After brief announcements instructing patrons not to use cameras or recording devices and urging calm in the face of the great wall of ice bearing down on the theater, the 22-member cast leaps into a spirited production number about advancing glaciers and the end of the world as we know it.
John Kander’s assertive rhythms fuse briskly with Bob Avian’s choreographed frenzies, and if faces aren’t clear in the sequence’s oddly murky lighting, Fred Ebb’s tricky rhymes certainly are. And when, at the end of the number, Sherie Scott’s fiercely coquettish Sabina steps forward in a skimpy maid’s uniform and uses her feather duster to brush in details of how all the catastrophes that have ever befallen humankind are about to be visited on a single nuclear familyher employers, the Antrobusesand how she, personally, doesn’t understand a word she’s going to have to say all evening, anyone familiar with Thornton Wilder’s deconstructivist fable will relax in an instant. Advance word suggested the show would be hard to follow. This definitely isn’t.
For a good half-hour thereafter, things remain gratifyingly clearclearer, in fact, than in Wilder’s original script, mostly because the sturdy conventions of musical comedy provide structure even as the show’s creators go busily about their business of dismantling dramatic form. When Sabina breaks through the theatrical “fourth wall” in a conventional mounting of Skin of Our Teeth to argue with the stage manager about plot points, she’s departing from all sorts of well-established traditions of stage realism. But in a musical, realism flies out the window with the first downbeat. Audiences expectin fact, they actively welcomeillogic.
So it’s no big deal to have Sabina look patrons straight in the eye and introduce the iconic Antrobus family: George, the busy inventor of such boons to humanity as the alphabet and the multiplication table; Maggie, his faithful wife for some 5,000 years; and their not terribly precocious kids, Gladys and Henry. Nor is it much of a stretch when Mr. Antrobus belts out a cheerful ode to his new invention, the wheel, or when he offers a place by the fire to the shivering musical quintetHomer, Socrates, Moses, Jesus, and the Blessed Virginthat shows up on his New Jersey doorstep seeking shelter from the glacier that’s just crossed the Hudson River. It’s not quite musical-comedy business as usual, but it’s perfectly comprehensible.
At just about this point in the proceedings, howeverand we’re a little more than halfway through the first actOver and Over’s much-reported preview travails begin to roil the dramatic waters. The first ripple comes when the charming little chamber musical that’s been developing so pleasantly in Eric D. Schaeffer’s characteristically nuanced staging gets abruptly sidelined so that Scott’s Sabina can gyrate with gaucho troubadours in an overpopulated dance number called “Someday, Pasadena.”
A parody of all those if-you-can-make-it-there-you’ll-make-it-anywhere ditties Kander & Ebb have penned for the likes of Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, this paean to a tinsel-challenged Tinseltown was all too obviously crafted to showcase the terpsichorean talents of Signature’s original Sabina, Bebe Neuwirth, who got fired during rehearsals. Scott, who is wonderfully ingratiating in the role, manages to finesse the number with personality, but dance isn’t her strong suit. The songnever more than a device to establish that Sabina loves movies so she can sing a sweet finale called “At the Rialto”ends up stopping the show’s forward momentum dead in its tracks.
Over and Over’s other big name, Dorothy Loudon, has an even more frustrating assignment. The creators originally hired her to play a part freshly invented for the musicalan assistant stage manager who covets Sabina’s jobbut audience confusion during previews established that this was one plot overlay too many, so the role was eliminated and Wilder’s basic structure reinstated. Casting about for something else Loudon might do, Schaeffer & Co. elected to give her three cameos, only one of whicha fading, aggressively timid beauty queen who delivers a knockout specialty number in the second actactually registers. For Loudon’s less auspicious first-act appearance as the frostbitten Blessed Virgin, librettist Joseph Stein did little more than saddle her with insipid Jewish-mother jokes and graft her clumsily onto a male-philosopher quartet. Her third and final bita patter duet called “Military Man” that sounds a bit too much like Cabaret’s “Money, Money, Money”wastes her talents just as effectively as the beauty-queen number exploits them.
Other preview-period alterations included the scrapping of a staging concept that reportedly made sense of Lou Stancari’s uncharacteristically ugly setting (the theater audience was originally supposed to be backstage with the actors), as well as the deletion of comic material for some of the 16 subsidiary cast members. At one point, there were escalating production numbers for the four famous philosophers (including a ballet in duckbilled life preservers) that no doubt made them seem more integral to the show. Now, they’re barely window dressing. In fact, remove three numbersone at the top of each of the show’s sections, Ice Age, Flood, and Warand Over and Over could very nearly be played entirely by Sabina and the four Antrobuses, with the stage manager donning wigs and doubling in the other parts as needed. (Well, OK…maybe the stage manager would need an assistant, but hey, that’d be a great part for Dorothy Lou…)
All the central parts are in good hands at Signature. Except while she’s doing that one dance number, you’d never guess that Scott had picked up Sabina’s feather duster halfway through rehearsals. She’s funny and gorgeous, and has great pipes. David Garrison brings a sturdy singing voice and wry humor to his role as the Antrobus patriarch, and Linda Emond is at once affecting and gloriously silly as his long-suffering wife.
Megan Lawrence, who left a plum role in the New York company of Les Miserables to return to Signature (where she took home a Helen Hayes nomination playing the lead in K&E’s Cabaret), makes the most of her too-few moments onstage. Her crisp vocals are among the show’s stronger assets, though there’s not much even she can do with a poem-set-to-music that is actually designed to be a dramatic nonstarter. (It’s one of three successive songs that must, for plot purposes, fail to make a case for the survival of the human race. Deflatingly enough from an audience perspective, they all do.)
Jim Newman’s easily bewildered Henry, initially vulnerable but capable of frightening violence, also makes a strong impression. A tap number in which this combat-booted, tattooed lad punishes the floorboards while spitting Ebb’s dark lyrics about “Nice People” is easily the show’s niftiest social commentary. And fine enough to seem seriously underused is Mario Cantone’s alternately flustered and buoyant Stage Manager.
Given so much performing talent and the savvy of the folks behind the scenes, it’s frustrating that their collective efforts haven’t jelled into a more gratifying entertainment. SRO long before it went into rehearsal, Over and Over is hardly an embarrassment, but, perhaps because they’ve had to junk their original concept, its authors haven’t made a very strong case for musicalizing Wilder’s prickly fable. After much adjusting and tweaking, the evening’s strengths are still the play’s strengths.
Of course, reworking a show while it’s up and running is like reinventing the wheel as an ice floe bears down on your house. And if grapevine reports are to be believed, Schaeffer and his creative team have enormously improved Over and Over since they first got it up on its feet. It’s hardly the audience-perplexing mess described by patrons who caught early previews. But for all the musical labors expended on it and occasional flashes of staging brilliance, it’s only a scattered, intermittently affecting Skin of Our Teeth.CP