On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
A note to director Michael Mayer and new book-writer Peter Parnell: When the main character breaks the fourth wall with a monologue to open the Act II, don’t give the long-suffering audience (trust me: the minutes go by like hours) a reason to snicker by having him deliver the line "It gets worse."
How could a re-imagining of a Broadway chestnut with a gay theme misfire? On all cylinders. They used to call Times reviewer Frank Rich "the butcher of Broadway," but Mayer and Parnell, who are responsible for this hatchet job, have earned the title. Book, casting, costumes, sets ... you name it, the producers got it wrong.
It gives me no pleasure to have to deliver such bad news about any show, let alone one starring a star as charismatic and talented as Harry Connick, Jr. But "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" is a botch through and through -- the worst musical revival on Broadway I have ever seen.
It’s especially surprising since Meyer has earned such a great reputation for innovation directing "American Idiot" and "Spring Awakening." But, as we’ve seen (e.g., Julie Taymor), on Broadway, with kudos comes hubris.
First, the good news: Entering middle age, Harry Connick, Jr., is at the top of his game. Handsome as Tom Cruise, with a clear-as-a-bell baritone that uncannily evokes Frank Sinatra in his late-mid career, Connick delivers in the thankless role of a psychiatrist-lecturer who falls in love with a patient’s previous life.
As the woman inside the patient, Jessie Mueller matches Connick in style, both dramatic and vocal. She looks as terrific in her period 1940s costumes as he does in dark suits as velvety as his voice.
Unfortunately, they are the only two cast members who inhabit decent costumes -- or their roles (with two exceptions, noted below).
From there, it’s straight downhill, starting with David Turner. Granted, Turner has a miserable role. As rewritten, he plays the awkward caterpillar (spoiler alert: he becomes a butterfly in his big Act II number, "What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?") who falls under Connick’s spell.
Granted, the original book wasn’t exactly a Broadway icon. The confusing plot involved a New York girl desperate to quit smoking at the insistence of her mousey fiancé.
Accidentally hypnotized, she reveals a previous life as an 18th century English courtesan -- moved to the Regency in the film. It’s worth noting that, even in its original (pardon the term) incarnation, the book was already being severely doctored.
The original is mostly remembered for several very good numbers, including the admittedly gorgeous title song, a cabaret staple, and the star-making turn by Barbara Harris.
In one of those grotesque casting decisions that so marred Hollywood musicals in the ’60s, the film turned the role over to Barbra Streisand, then in her early gargoyle days. La Streisand didn’t chew the scenery; she devoured it like an anaconda, leaving Yves Montand (the shrink) as the real sleepwalker.
Even so, the movie feels like "Citizen Kane" compared to the current revival taking up not enough space in the cavernous St. James. In one of the many lame creative decisions, the glamorous and decorative original period is moved to the 1970s. Even given the overall cultural hideousness of the era, the op-art sets and disco-y costumes are especially nauseating.
So I’m willing to give Turner some slack. But even so, in this musical at least, he should never have gotten closer to the stage than with a flashlight and a stack of Playbills. He totally lacks any presence, and even his singing is off-key.
As his patient partner, a gay lawyer who anachronistically maws about the day when the two can be married (one of many bald attempts to solicit "relevance"), amiable Drew Gehling inhabits his role and songs quite nicely. Ditto for Kerry O’Malley, as a fellow shrink with an understandable crush on Connick.
Would that I could say the same for Sarah Stiles, who plays the fag hag role of Turner’s roommate, confidante, and gossip among an odd circle of her psychiatric student friends (who constitute the entire chorus in this severely undernourished production).
With a voice that sounds like a young Bernadette Peters imitating Betty Boop after ingesting helium, the only thing more grating than her line delivery is her singing. I earnestly hope that she was misdirected and that’s not her real voice.
Part of the rewrite seems to have been done to give Connick (justifiably) the lion’s share of the numbers. The transposition to America in the Second World War seems to have been done solely to give an excuse for big band transcriptions of some songs, including much better ones borrowed from other musicals with lyrics done by the original lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner.
The show was never known for its choreography, but here, the best that can be said for it is that there is very little. The groovy numbers are head spinning in their awfulness.
As for the gay theme, an acquaintance told me after the show that there was a whole semester’s worth of graduate studies in gender, to which I say, "Hogwash." The one potentially interesting aspect of having Connick’s character fall in love with a man’s female persona is brought up by a colleague who helpfully points out the obvious: A man who falls in love with a man, under a pretense, has "issues."
This is dismissed in one sentence, and no more is made of it. Which is a real shame, because the whole meta-aspect of a man falling in love with a woman in a man’s body might have had potential. Consider "Victor/Victoria", where the James Garner character is perplexed by a similar situation.
But instead, the writers cop out with a couple of lame references to reparative therapy and the patient falling in love with his shrink. This is what’s known in psychiatric circles as "transference," and nearly always happens, no matter the sexual identity of the patient.
It’s really a shame, because this could have been so much more. It’s a fascinating pretext, taking an old show and giving it a gay spin. Consider bringing out the much-discussed "love that dare not speak its name" between Higgins and Pickering in "My Fair Lady." Or what if Curley and Jud had something going on behind the haystacks in "Oklahoma!"?
But chances are the estates of those treasured classics would never have allowed such a weird rehashing. So instead, we get a thoroughly muddy musical. "Clear Day" indeed. More like a foggy day in New Yorktown.
"On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" has an open-ended run
at The St. James Theater, 246 W. 44th St. For info or tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge