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It’s been over 20 years since Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for her performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression-era heart-tugger Paper Moon. Adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown, the filmabout a street-smart orphan and the essentially decent con man who might be her fatherwas a natural for musicalization if ever there was one, a kind of potential Annie-on-the-road-with-the-Joads.
But critical reaction scuttled a Broadway-bound 1993 production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse (it starred TV’s Gregory Harrison, who despite not being known for his talents as a vocalist will soon be back in New York in Kander and Ebb’s dance-marathon extravaganza Steel Pier). Still, Paper Moon’s creators didn’t give up; they retrenched, revised, and recast, and when it bowed at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House last fall, the latest incarnation of Addie’s story retained only three tunes from the original, which suggests that Harrison was far from the only problem.
Now at Ford’s Theatre, Paper Moon is a charming if not entirely captivating show, and it may well survive this time around despite the inevitable comparisons to that other little-orphan musical (itself being revived in a 20th-anniversary production that has already made headlines for the intrigues surrounding the unfortunate urchin recently booted from the title role).
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Leather-lunged Lindsay Cummings is a charmer as Addie, who’s somehow a hard-bitten cynic and a pie-eyed optimist at once: “Frank D. Roosevelt says we got to look out for one another,” she says, just before she helps Moze, her reluctant guardian, dupe another widow into buying a Bible her late husband supposedly ordered. Addie’s Robin Hood blend of cleverness and conscienceshe’s got no problem taking a rich “widda woman” for an extra few bucks, but she impulsively aborts another con when it becomes plain that the mark is already in desperate straitsis what makes her character so appealing, and Cummings sells both qualities as easily as she hawks the Word. She has the advantage, too, of drawing most of the best lines: “I don’t know what that is,” Addie retorts when Moze talks about having scruples, “but if you’ve got ’em it’s a sure bet they belong to somebody else.”
Mark Zimmerman makes an effectively sleazy Moses Pray, though he’s a bit disappointing musically; Ford’s is a relatively intimate house, the Paper Moon band isn’t big, and the cast is amplified, but there are still times when it isn’t entirely clear what he’s singing. And when he does get notes across the footlights, they aren’t always the right ones; at last Saturday’s evening performance he was clearly off-pitch at the end of the melodically sophisticated “Pretty Like Your Mama.”
Nancy Ringham is altogether better as Miss Trixie Delight, the hoochie-koochie girl Moze falls for midway through the trip; she’s a belter of the old school, and she gives a surprisingly complex performance to boot. (And her getup for her initial entrancean eye-popping ensemble involving pink gloves, a slinky satin gown whose color falls somewhere between banana yellow and a nauseous chartreuse, and a feather boa so aggressively fuchsia it seems to vibrateis simply not to be believed. Her opening number ends with her reclining on a scarlet divan, taking the clash factor to another plane entirely.)
Larry Grossman’s accomplished score boasts a couple of genuinely ingratiating ballads (“I Recollect Him,” “You’re Home”) and one rouser (Trixie’s “I Do What I Can (With What I Got)”), but there’s no single showstopper to bowl audiences over, and the hoedown that erupts when Addie finally arrives at her strict Aunt Billie Roy’s house is a real head-scratcher, revolving as it does around skinning rabbits for a stew. Many of the songs seem a little talky, but at least Ellen Fitzhugh’s lyrics are literate and occasionally even witty. Too bad the same can’t be said for Martin Casella’s book, which mines the source material for enough zingers to keep things interesting for a while but then gets flabby in the second act.
Matt Casella’s direction is relatively conservative, even old-fashioned: Transitions into musical numbers are generally smooth, but solos always seem to end with the principal standing center stage, facing the audience, as though Stephen Sondheim had never lived. James Youmans’ set is perhaps needlessly elaborate for this essentially intimate story, though it must be said its elements come and go smoothly, without those deadly breaks between scenes. The primary backdropa projected landscape dominated by an endless, open skyis achingly beautiful, and the rafter-shaped “proscenium arch” that frames it is an effective (if not subtle) reminder of the story’s message about what qualities make a home.
With a little tightening, Paper Moon could be a success; its two main characters are the sort of hardheaded misfits American myths are constantly being built around (precisely because we want to root for them). It’s not ever likely to be a runaway hit, though, and if it heads to Broadway anytime soon, it’s as likely as not to be lost in the flood of better fare opening this spring.CP