Peter D. Kramer

Analyst, heal thyself

In Reviews on December 12, 2011 at 6:59 am

One can’t help but wonder if an analyst’s care might have prevented “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” the mess of a musical that opened last night at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, a big bipolar and jaw-droppingly embarrassing work directed and “reconceived” by Michael Mayer, who had success with “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot.”

Mayer, it seems, always loved listening to the cast recording of the 1965 Burton Lane-Alan Jay Lerner musical about a girl, her shrink, and the woman she once was. In the original story, Daisy has ESP and a past life as Melinda Wells, who lived in the 18th century. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Bruckner, hypnotizes Daisy and falls in love with Melinda, making for a bizarre love triangle.

Mayer loved the music, but not the book, which he calls “problematic.”

Then, 15 years ago, while directing “Side Man” at Vassar College, he had a breakthrough. He could save this musical.

What was his vision at Vassar? His epiphany in Poughkeepsie?

Well, it starts with a boy.

Turn Daisy into David, a gay florist in New York. Send him to the shrink. Have the shrink hypnotize David and fall in love with Melinda. That, Mayer concluded, would present all kinds of wonderful obstacles for his “reconceived” musical.

(And, it turns out, for the audience.)

This is where that analyst’s couch would have come in handy. Had Mayer simply spoken this epiphany out to someone detached and rational — and not someone connected with Broadway — all of this might have been avoided. “Michael,” this analyst might have said, “it’s a loopy musical with a weak story and a few good songs. Move on. Here are some pills for your musical-induced anxiety. I’ll see you next Wednesday.”

But Mayer didn’t speak with a detached, rational person. He spoke with people who somehow convinced Harry Connick Jr. to add his name to the marquee as Dr. Mark Bruckner, the psychiatrist.

Remember the music Mayer loved? Along the way, he added songs from the 1970 film which starred Barbra Streisand and, just for good measure, some songs from another Lerner and Lane musical, “Royal Wedding.” He and book writer Peter Parnell changed the time period to 1974 (“Imagine all the groovy costumes!”) and moved Melinda to the ’40s (“Ooooh, big band music!”).

Here’s another point where an analyst might have said, “Michael, this isn’t ‘On a Clear Day’ anymore. What say we just decide that the original was flawed and you concentrate on creating something new?” To which the indefatigable Mayer likely would have retorted: “But people set Shakespeare in all sorts of different time periods. It’s a reinterpretation.”

Here’s where that analyst might have looked Mayer in the eye and said, “Michael, this isn’t Shakespeare. Move on.”

There must have been dozens of people along the way who, if they were clear-thinking and not in the thrall of Mayer’s considerable talent and energy, might have said: “Michael. Enough. This is kinda fun at a cocktail party, to kick around how we’d remake this musical or that — remember what fun we had mixing ‘Annie’ with ‘Anna Karenina’? — but this is just silly. You’re a talented man. Move on.”

Mayer moved on to the St. James.

Audiences arrive to see a smiling Connick on the marquee, but his good doctor is dour and clinical. Worse yet, the songs Bruckner sings are low in Connick’s register and melodically challenged. It seems he just gets started singing and the songs break and send him in another, darker direction.

Juxtapose that with the psychedelic and sappy setting of David the florist — in Catherine Zuber’s over-the-top costumes that must have been a hoot on the drawing board, less so on stage — and you have a truly bipolar evening. The people who sing out loud are the ensemble, in one embarrassing “showstopper” after another, set to Joann M. Hunter’s juvenile and silly choreography, while Connick, the name above the title, is reduced to songs you can’t exactly whistle.

David Turner is forgettable as David the florist. His voice is neither strong nor memorable.

Jessie Mueller, however, makes the most of her role as Melinda, with pipes and personality to spare. Her second-act number, a Big Band “Ev’ry Night at Seven” stops the show for all the right reasons, the evening’s first glimmer of charm.

Drew Gehling, who plays Warren, David’s lawyer boyfriend, has a fine voice, too, if put in service to a lackluster “Love With All the Trimmings” and the laugh-out-loud-for-all-the-wrong-reasons “Wait ‘Til We’re Sixty-Five,” as big a waste of time and talent as, well, trying to convince Michael Mayer that he should move on.

Gehling and Mueller show great promise and deserve to be heard from again.

Connick’s fans — who snapped up tickets as soon as they went on sale, awaiting the crooner’s return to Broadway after his great run in “Pajama Game” a few seasons back — will be justifiably disappointed.

“Let the man sing,” you can hear them saying. “He’s got a great voice.”

It’s not until the title song — at about 10:30 — that they get their reward. But it’s too little too late.

Save your money. If you want to hear Harry Connick Jr. this holiday season, buy his great Christmas album, “When My Heart Finds Christmas.”

Eight bucks on Amazon.

You can lie down on the couch and listen to it.

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