The Avenue He's Takin' You To

Al Dubin was talented, troubled, and tough to portray

In American theater, there's a long hard road that most successful plays take. At its very start, a playwright gets a script produced somehow, and, with luck, it's a hit. With some restaging and rewrites and more luck, it moves on to New York City. More luck, more rewrites, and the show runs. At that point, out-of-town theaters will probably want to book it. By the time it heads back into the heartland, a show may have been worked over so many times, it's like clockwork: Just wind it up and set it in motion.

The journey can take a lot of time, yet in South Florida, the physical distance traveled can be as short as four miles.

Consider two neighboring theaters, the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. Both are major companies, both operate large former movie palaces, and both offer commercial fare featuring musicals. But Coconut Grove is often at the start of the theater chain, and Actors' Playhouse is usually at the end.

That old push-me-pull-you relationship
That old push-me-pull-you relationship

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Presented through March 9. Call 305-442-4000.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy., Miami

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CGP has been serving up a string of world premieres, rough-hewn shows in the making that will be refined and trimmed, revised and rethought on their way to New York. Urban Cowboy, for example, the company's opener this season, opens any day now on Broadway. Meanwhile, AP mounts revivals of classic musicals, such as this year's big hit, The Sound of Music, a 40-year-old script that years ago was brought to an advanced level of slickness and precision. Sure, both are big musicals, but comparing the two is apples and oranges. It's the difference between theater as process and theater as product.

With this in mind, consider CGP's latest world premiere,The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a musical biography of the talented, troubled lyricist Al Dubin, who wrote some of the best-known songs of the 20th Century. Viewed as mere product, this show is decidedly flawed, with a number of elements that work against it. But if you can see past these and look into the heart of this show, you may see a stronger, clearer work that just might take wings someday. American theater history is jam-packed with last-minute makeovers that, with judicious doctoring and inspired rethinking, turned misfires into hits. It ain't over till it's over.

You may have never heard of Al Dubin, but you have heard his lyrics. How about "Lullaby of Broadway"? "42nd Street"? "We're in the Money"? "Tiptoe Through the Tulips?" All Dubin's. Working mostly with composer Harry Warren, Dubin knocked out hit after hit for vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood. Most of Busby Berkeley's big-screen musicals were powered by Warren/Dubin tunes. And like the Hollywood stars he befriended, Dubin lived large, an expansive, ebullient bon vivant whose fondness for whiskey, women, and song couldn't make up for lifelong psychological conflicts and unhappiness. He was famous but not as famous as he wanted. He was successful but not for long enough:

"I walk along the street of sorrow The Boulevard of Broken Dreams The joy you find here, you borrow You cannot keep it long, it seems."

Writers write what they know, and Dubin knew all about longing, loss, and regret. But he also knew romance, poetry, and the search for perfection. All these sentiments are given voice in song after song.

With Dubin as the show's tormented, poetic heart and the Warren/Dubin songs as its tuneful soul, this Boulevard has the makings of a major musical hit. But Joel Kimmel's script does not rise to this potential -- at least not yet. Kimmel opens his account of Dubin's rise and fall with a framing device: the 1971 ceremony that inducted Dubin into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. There, his adult daughter Patricia looks back on her father's life. As a struggling young lyricist, Dubin falls madly for Helen McClay, a Broadway chanteuse. They exchange love letters while Dubin is off in Europe fighting World War I, then marry upon his return. As Dubin's career takes off, he finds greater glory and lots of female companionship in Hollywood. As Dubin drinks, womanizes, neglects his work, and gambles, his marriage breaks up, as does his partnership with Warren. On the rocks, he hopes for a comeback but dies at 53. This episodic, linear narrative is a pretty dull prospect on which to hang a musical, and Kimmel's handling of it doesn't overcome its inherent negatives. Kimmel opts for a "realistic" rendering, starting with Dubin's early days and ending with his last. But in so doing, he undercuts his main asset: It isn't what Dubin did but who he was that's interesting. Yes, Dubin is conflicted and in torment, and when the inner tension builds in the second half of the show, it really starts to work. But Kimmel never explains why Dubin was the way he was, despite the obvious push-me-pull-you relationship he had with his parents. Could Dubin have been caught in a no-win search for parental approval? Was his restless womanizing a search for maternal comfort (he ended up living with a nurse he met during a hospital stay)? Kimmel never ventures to guess, but he can't have it both ways. Either this is a character-driven story or it isn't. So far, it isn't.

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