"Cradle" Will Softly Rock

Madonna, heaven help us, has yet to don patchwork jeans and a tiara and croon Cat's in the Cradle to a synthesized beat. But the day may still come when Harry Chapin's folksy ballads, like Don McLean's "American Pie," become fodder for the pop diva's gristmill.

Until then, you can trip back in time to the trumpet sleeve-and-patchouli era with Harry Chapin's America: Musical Lies & Legends. In this jangly musical revue, the Coconut Grove Playhouse aims to recapture the wistful, world-gone-by pathos and tattered blue jeans idealism that defined the singer-storyteller.

The show's four-member cast uses costumes, a variety of instruments, and recorded voice-overs of the late artist himself to animate the characters from his Watergate-era songs. There's the optimistic morning DJ on WOLD, the junior truck driver who loses control of his slippery cargo -- 30,000 pounds of bananas, and of course the father too busy to play ball with the son who wants to be like him. You know he's gonna be like him.

Like James Taylor and Cat Stevens, Chapin fell into that bin of performers who peaked in the mid 1970s with a blend of acoustic melodies and folksy stories. But Chapin wasn't interested in stardom. He wasn't cool. He claimed never to have used drugs. That's in the '70s, when reefer was practically a major food group.

Critics delighted in dismissing him. Rolling Stone, in fact, once labeled Billy Joel "a bad Harry Chapin." After all Harry's biggest hit, "Cat's in the Cradle," wasn't the least bit sexy. It was about a cranky, middle-class guy who didn't want to hang out with his kid. But it sold albums. And it spoke a certain truth. That tends to rankle reviewers (well, that and cheap sentiment). They called him "banal" and "maudlin," and sometimes they were right.

Still, there was one thing they couldn't call Chapin: a hypocrite. He wasn't just singing blithely about the droughts in Africa and then banging teenage girls in his trailer. He had a wife and kids and donated millions, campaigning mercilessly to end world hunger, which he considered an "obscenity." No doubt about it. Harry was a square.

With that in mind, the Coconut Grove Playhouse has its work cut out for it. How do you translate the pleas of a starchy humanitarian to audiences whose biggest worry is whether they remembered to set the VCR to tape NBC's Will & Grace? Answer: You don't have to. If you listen with an uncynical ear, the themes of Chapin's songs -- alienation, disappointment, unrequited love, and yearning -- still resonate, some eerily so, like the verse from "What Made America Famous" about a town where "the church is full, and the kids all goin' to hell."

Wearing denim and cowboy boots and Mama Cass dresses, the cast performs on a wood-plank dais, plucking their instruments (acoustic guitars, mandolins, and harmonicas) from a wall of hats, cloaks, and other American bric-a-brac. The hayseed set design, though a little too Hee Haw, ultimately complements the honky-tonk-like intimacy of the Encore Room. At times the show resembles a sing-along, and you feel the urge to hoist your plastic cup and sway along with the chorus.

Of course the best reason to see Chapin's America is Amy Carol Webb's far-reaching alto, which can sound as soft and fine as Carole King's or as strong and thunderous as Ann Wilson's of Heart. Webb, the daughter of a concert pianist turned preacher and a commercial singer, is an accomplished songwriter and guitarist who has played across the country on the coffeehouse circuit for years. When she takes center stage, few can steal the spotlight from her. Her voice fills the empty spaces in your bones.

Likewise Barry Tarallo uses his lilting tenor and plucky mannerisms to turn "Bananas," a rollicking riff about a novice trucker who smears his massive payload down a craggy mountain slope, into a hilarious ride. He's even better as the fading DJ from radio station WOLD, flawlessly reaching the high notes and adding his own "reverb" after the station's call letters. There's also a lot to like about newcomer Sarah Guarnaccia, a University of Miami theater student who makes her debut in Chapin's America. She has a clear, shimmering soprano that complements Chapin's occasionally operatic solos, like the mournful song about the sailor's wife left to sit and wait with the rest of the sea widows in "Dogtown."

With so many talented voices on stage, it's a shame things go awry during the ensemble pieces. Sometimes the harmonies on tunes like "Odd Job Man" and "Dance Band on the Titanic" fall flatter than a stack of two-by-fours.

If Harry had any talent, it was for creating characters and settings that were easily visual and universally familiar. The simplicity of his songwriting conveyed human longing and despair with a searing clarity. It needed no embellishment. That is why Chapin's America stumbles when actor-director Christopher Bishop tries to inject hucksterish nods and sarcasm into the ballads. The bittersweet duet "Mail Order Annie," about a couple's awkward first meeting at a train station, doesn't benefit from his hammy nudging at the audience. And Chapin's fragile, aching commentary on the distance between a father and son in "Cat's in the Cradle" suffers miserably from Bishop's ad-libbing and over-the-top characterizations. There's no need to act out the voices here. This isn't The Three Little Pigs.

Chapin's America doesn't fall easily into any one category -- it's part musical revue, part tribute, and part revival at times. Like Harry it's square, but it keeps on rolling.

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Jackie Potts