Lyric Stage in Irving is justifiably renowned for Broadway-level productions of musicals. In fact, they surpass today's Broadway theaters by presenting revivals of shows, complete with the original orchestrations, played by a full symphony orchestra. That's unheard of on the Great White Way, where you are lucky to get a couple of instrumentalists to complement the banks of sampling synthesizers.
Credit has to go to Founding Producer Steven Jones, whose "if we are going to do it, let's do it right" philosophy gives Lyric Stage a national reputation. This would not be possible without the electric and energetic participation of Musical Director Jay Dias. Not only is he a superb conductor, but he brings a musicologist's scholarship to reconstructing the original versions.
The current result of Dias' research is the production of Frank Loesser's 1965 musical Pleasures and Palaces, which opened on Thursday for a four-performance concert staging in the Irving Arts Center's Carpenter Performance Hall. Originally, the musical closed during out-of-town tryouts and has lain fallow in a dusty trunk. Ever since, Jo Sullivan Loesser, Frank's widow, has been keeping an eye out for someone to trust with a new staging and, Lyric Stage seemed the right fit. They did a full staging of his The Most Happy Fella in the fall.
Reconstructing the score was an immense undertaking and the results are impressive indeed. The orchestration (by Jay Dias from the original by Philip J. Lang) is on a level with the highly colored scores of Maurice Ravel. The level of detail is amazing. Since this is a Russian story, Loesser even includes a Russian-style mandolin. We also are treated to a German oompah band when a German character appears and even canon fire.
The unlikely plot is loosely based on historical events (and on a play by Sam Spewack, who co-wrote the musical's book with Loesser). Since there was nothing in the program to prepare us, the audience has to gather who the characters are and where and when to story is taking place purely from context. It took a while, but we finally figured it out.
The American war hero of the Revolutionary War John Paul Jones is hired by the Empress Catherine II (as in "The Great") of Russia in to recapture Constantinople. He finds himself drawn into political intrigue and sexual shenanigans. Catherine is in love with Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin, who is enamored with the femme fatale Sura, who finds herself torn between Potemkin and Jones. Potemkin's greed and satyr-like behavior eventually catches up with him. But all works out in the end.
Ann Nieman directs and choreographs the modern-dress and mostly set-less concert production, and skillfully handles the 43-person cast. Given the limitations of "semi-staged," she keeps the action moving forward and creates vivid characters, mostly with facial expressions and minimal movements.
Christopher Carl, last seen as Hajj in Lyric's concert staging of Kismet, makes a smug, supremely egotistical and completely charming Potemkin. Luann Aronson, last seen as Lyric as Anna in The King and I, turns Catherine the Great into a glamorous woman who is much smarter than she lets on. Bryant Martin, who impressed as Curly in Oklahoma! and as Thomas Jefferson in 1776 in 2012, plays the priggish Presbyterian John Paul Jones as a overly staunch boy scout. Danielle Estes brings out the schizophrenic saint-and-sinner personality of Sura. Other excellent featured actors include Brian Mathis, Christopher Curtis, James Williams, Ben Phillips, and Randy Pearlman.
The music is quite delightful and runs the gamut from clever character numbers to touching anthems. A wonderful example of the former is Catherine's moment of self-honesty, "My Lover Is a Scoundrel" and then later, the tearjerker that Jones sings in prison "Ah, To Be Home Again."
However, it is readily apparent why the musical closed out of town, even though it possesses terrific music and was directed and choreographed by Broadway legend Bob Fosse. The book is a disaster. They should have known since Spewack's original 1961 play Once There Was a Russian also flopped in a big way. Why anyone thought that it would work better as a musical is anybody's guess.
First of all, creating a broadly comic libretto out of a deadly serious historical situation has its own pitfalls. In turning his corny play into a musical, Spewack fails by trying to be merely amusing rather than bringing out the banana peels. He just doesn't go nearly far enough. If the creaky plot was moved out of reality and into an imaginary kingdom, full of buffoons like in the Marx Brothers movies, it could be very funny with minor text changes. For example, Carl plays Potemkin as a handsome rascal when the role cries out for cigar-toting Groucho type. Creating a silly kingdom, like in the movie The Mouse That Roared, or even a ridiculous take on a real country, like Gilbert and Sullivan's send-up of Japan in The Mikado, might have helped.
Reportedly, musical aficionados have come out of the woodwork for this revival, traveling to Texas from New York and elsewhere for the rare event. That kind of curiosity is going to drive Lyric's production, and for that reason alone, you should see it. But get tickets soon as it only runs through Sunday. Who knows, this might be your last chance to see Pleasures and Palaces reincarnated.
Of course, that's what they said after that failed tryout in Detroit nearly 50 years ago.