There are things to like about Interact Theatre Company’s Great Expectations: The Musical, but the music can’t be listed among them.
Nor, come to think of it, can the story. Add songs to Charles Dickens’ already maudlin morality tale, peel subtleties and context away from the narrative as ruthlessly as the stage-musical form requires, and you get an artifact as sentimental and stale as Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.
Oh, maybe Cyril Ornadel’s tunes seemed fresher in 1975, when, in the wake of the smash success Oliver! and the disappointing flop Pickwick, they helped bring the show Britain’s Ivor Novello Award for best new musical. But then there wasn’t a whole lot of musical theater to crow about in 1975 Londonthe competition would hardly have been intimidating.
You’d think Great Expectations would be a no-brainer. The plot, remember, involves an orphan, Pip, who turns his back on the good-hearted blacksmith uncle who’s raised him when an anonymous benefactor offers him a chance to be the gentleman he’s always wanted to be. Add in the subplot about the mysterious convictand the subplot about the jilted spinster who stops all the clocks and spends the rest of her life in her wedding gown plotting vengeance against the male half of the raceand you’ve got what looks like prime material for musicalization. Maybe it would’ve worked better in the hands of, say, Les Misérables creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. A little outsized romanticism and over-the-top despair would probably have done wonders for a property that traffics in moral certitude, class consciousness, gender-war revenge fantasies, and pure Victorian melodrama.
But if Interact’s staging at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theatre is lively and largely smart, Ornadel’s ditties (and Hal Shaper’s book, which strips away all of Dickens’ bleak style) just don’t work. At best, the music comes across as hopelessly retro, entirely forgettable: There’s one attempt at a soaring ballad”One Kiss,” in which orphan-turned-gentleman Pip rhapsodizes over the icy heartbreaker Estellathat gives Mark Aldrich a chance to show off his strong, silvery tenor. But the lyrics are trivial: “One kiss, once an age ago/One kiss, how it changed me so.” And the tune must be, too: I’m damned if I can remember how it goesthough not because Aldrich isn’t asked to reprise it at every opportunity. Andrew Lloyd Webber has nothing on Shaper and Ornadel when it comes to aggressive musical salesmanship.
At worst, Ornadel’s music exhibits the kind of what-were-they-thinking weirdness that makes Carrie a musical-theater legend: I’m thinking of the threatening little waltz Miss Havisham sings while Pip and Estella play cards, which ends with a tormented repetition, on a rising phrase, of “Estella! Estella!” The charitable will merely shake their heads; the unkind will snicker and mutter snide things about Stanley Kowalski in a wedding dress.
It’s not just the music that seems naive in Great Expectations. It’s the dramaturgy, too: Great Expectations is the sort of show in which an adult narrator hovers fondly over a child actor (Derek Kahn Thompson) playing his younger self. He doesn’t just hover, in facthe actually sends him off with a fond farewell about midway through: something to the effect of “And so I said goodbye to my youth forever,” upon which Young Pip and Adult Pip shake hands, and young Thompson exits to warm audience applause. And why would anyone write a musical without an opening number? The cheesy horror-movie music that accompanies young Pip’s graveyard run-in with the convicts who’ll haunt his adulthood doesn’t count; Ornadel’s first real offering, the bouncy, alliterative “Pip,” comes about 10 minutes into the first act.
While we’re wondering about the show’s construction, why didn’t director Catherine Flye cut the third reprise of the title tune, which stops the action dead just before a crucial plot development? There we are, in the dark dockside streets of London with Pip and the exiled convict he’s trying to smuggle back out of the country; the boat’s waiting, the bad guy’s lurking in the shadows, the tension’s building, and the heartbreaking farewell is at handand suddenly everyone’s singing again: “I’ve got Great Expectations of life/It has Great Expectations of me….When you’re born the lowest of low/Why up’s (beat) the only way you can go!” Boggles the mind, it does.
Flye has done fine work elsewhere, especially in a bright little bit of Marx Brothers-ish traffic-copping in the offices of Mr. Jaggers (the invaluable Ralph Cosham). If her perky staging of the big choruses (“Welcome to London,” “The Finches of the Grove”) seems a trifle too influenced by Interact’s affinity for Gilbert & Sullivan, she nonetheless keeps a good-sized cast moving smoothly around Robin Stapley’s multilevel marvel of a set. She’s drawn warm performances, too, from supporting players, including Biddy (Dori Legg), who marries Pip’s Uncle Joe after he’s widowed in Act II, and the adult Estella (Johanna Gerry).
And however tempting it may be to see a stunt in Interact’s casting of Fred Grandy (“Congressman Gopher,” wags call him, from his stints as The Love Boat’s hapless purser and later as Iowa’s elected representative), he makes a fine Joe Gargery; his comic timing is impeccable, especially in the show’s one really charming number, a patter song called “Speechless.”
He deserves a better showcase. So does Aldrich, who maintains his dignity here as thoroughly as he did in last year’s execrable Man With a Load of Mischief at Rep Stage. So does Great Expectations, for that matter. Hey, if Edwin Drood can be turned into a tuner, and if Phantom of the Opera can make us love a morbidly psychotic freak, there’s no reason Miss Havisham can’t find a place in musical theater history. CP