Saturday, June 04, 2016

New Musical About 42nd Street Songwriters Rides Sky-High on Socko Songs -- Plods Along in Fairy Tale Scripting

 Jared Gertner and Constantine Rousouli as Dubin and Warren.

New Musical Review: I Only Have Eyes For You
at the Montalban, Hollywood
through June 12

Bottom Line:  The singing and dancing is so exhilarating, it's a must-see.

Out of Warner Bros. during the great depression came a hot slate of Busby Berkeley musicals with songs by probably the greatest song-writing team ever created in Hollywood: composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin.  Best known for their contributions to Forty Second Street, their toe-taping tunes include Shuffle Off to Buffalo, Lullaby of Broadway, You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me.

A new musical about the life of Dubin. I Only Have Eyes for You, opened recently in tryout at the The Montlaban theatre on Vine Street. The smartly crafted production soars with an emphatic sure-footed sizzle across the stage, if only its shallow book was less afraid to face the real life of its subject.  Writers Jerry Leichtling and Arlen Sarner push a superimposed theme of ever-lasting love onto Dubin and his stay-at-home wife, a former showgirl.   Dubin agreed to convert from Jew to Catholic if she would give up showbiz (hard to believe) to raise a family.

The Dubin marriage on this snap-happy stage is a one dimensional affair of break ups and make ups, so many I couldn’t keep track of them all. The jokes are not very funny.  Dubin becomes ever more erratic, gone for days on binges and womanizing, exasperating both his more grounded collaborator,  Warren, and his dutifully bland wife.

Between the powerhouse singing and dancing — the entire cast, a fair sensation, is spot on perfect — a plodding book charts Dubin’s gradual fall into alcoholism and professional failure  Towards what feels like the inevitable end point for the musical, we see him collapsing onto a New York street in lonely disarray.  This scene gives the treatment a suddenly gripping gravitas, and I could feel a final curtain about to fall.   In deed, this did happen to Dubin in his real life; three days later, only in his mid-fifties and estranged from his wife, he was dead. But not here. Not on this stage.  No, comes yet another embracing reconciliation for the two inseparable  Dubins.  Pure fairy tale.

Darkness is something this musical has a hard time facing.  We see a homeless man wandering across the stage at intervals, and his presence can send shivers of reality down the spine. Dubin is sympathetic with money, and, so,  how can we not logically expect the arrival of the team’s great song, The Forgotten Man?  Incredible, that song never arrives, even when Dubin, stumbling down into a shell on the street of his doom, becomes the song himself. 

Director-choreographer  Kay Cole does a terrific job in shaping the dances, pacing the show fluidly.   Orchestrations by Doug Walter and Steven Scott Smalley are heavenly fine, especially the reprisals of melodies just sung, now instrumentally floating below the surface.

Warren and Dubin produced very few ballads of note;  September in the Rain, a notable exception, gives the tuner some depth.  But, Don’t Give Up The Ship, an obscure number, falls flat.

The team’s greatest movie musical, Forty Second Street, is a true rags to riches story.  Here, in I Only Have Eyes for You, is the making of a more dramatic riches to rags tale.

I loved this musical despite its flaws.  Tuner could easily shed 30 minutes and come out ahead.  Some of the production numbers, trading on old movie musical imagery, are supernatural to behold.  Surreal scenic effects by the gifted John Iacovelli, with lighting by Brandon Baruch,  create a misty cinematic sheen.   Al Jolson and Carmen Miranda both have cameos so real, it is almost like watching them springing back to life from the dead. And to sit with an audience composed, I had to, wanted to believe, of old-line Hollywood pros, knowing that they who helped create such film legends as these were watching them come back to life -- now that perception alone was electrifying to contemplate.

The stars were out that night -- only in Hollywood.

See it if you can.

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