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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.
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.
The production itself relies heavily on a constant stream of energetic musical numbers, as the cast of nine sings and dances its way through one Warren/Dubin tune after another. Director/choreographer Kay Cole has a knack for staging these numbers, and her straight scene direction is crisp and detailed. But she hasn't found the emotional/dramatic payoffs that aren't explicit in the script. Early in the show, Dubin, in Europe, and Helen, in New York, exchange letters. Cole stages this from the far ends of the proscenium -- the distance makes sense in the situational context. But the emotional surge of the letters, which get progressively more intimate, is lost in the staging. The actors never meet. With no kiss, no hug, no contact, there's no theatrical or emotional payoff. Sure, they are physically far away in the narrative. But emotionally they meet, and we want them to. Much of the rest of the show also suffers from such literalism. Only in the second act, when Dubin laments his outcast state, do the ghostly figures of Helen and Warren loom up around him, reprising some of their earlier dialogue. This kind of phantasmagoric imagination is precisely right but regrettably scarce.
The cast features Jordan Bennett, who is flat-out spectacular as the ebullient, tormented Dubin. Bennett's silky, powerful singing voice is matched by his expansive, driven characterization. He is well-paired with Elizabeth Ward Land as his cool, long-suffering wife. Bennett and Land nail some of the show's dreamier romantic numbers, such as "For You" and "I'll String Along with You." Then, as their marriage starts to crumble, Land puts her bluesy, torchy mark on "Painting the Clouds with Sunshine" and "September in the Rain." When these moments happen, this show levitates.
But it quickly settles back down to earth. While the supporting cast is solid if not stellar, playing an array of Hollywood stars that Dubin encounters, they are burdened by a series of dramatically and emotionally irrelevant production numbers, many of which serve the purpose of displaying parts of the Warren/Dubin repertoire that could easily have been pared away. The same can decidedly be said of Bradley Kay's lumbering set, which appears to have made injudicious use of the massive brick walls and steps from Romeo & Bernadette, CGP's previous tenant, which also suffered from the misapprehension that more stairs, flats, and arches makes for a better show. Word to all: It doesn't. It just makes for longer, fussier scene shifts.
No one from this production has asked me, and, trust me, after this review, probably nobody will -- but here's my prescription for Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Give Dubin's inner conflict more focus earlier on, dump all the brick set pieces, clear out the space, let lighting designer Steven Young carve it up with lights, then take Kay Cole's tentative second-act staging ideas and let them run free from the first scene onward. Think theatricality, not realism. One minor carp: Cut the Carmen Miranda sequence, "South American Way." Most of the cast has no clue how to move to a Latin beat: The number looks like something from the Stockholm Sound Machine.
Is all of this so far-fetched? I don't think so. Michelangelo, according to legend, explained his sculptures this way: He just looked into the stone, saw what was trapped within, and chipped away what wasn't necessary. Time to chip away on this Boulevard. Time also for the Coconut Grove Playhouse to start selling itself as "theater in the making." Watching shows come to life can be downright addictive.