Among the reasons for Newman's appeal to theater producers is the character-driven essence of so many of his songs, creating a kind of bridge made of rope between pop and musical theater. Yet his most piquant, probing and soulful songs are not those that made him famous. When he's at his best, Newman conjures and compresses just a handful of perfectly crafted lines spoken by characters who may be too delicate, too multifaceted and too filled with internal contradictions for a culture bent on reduction. After hearing the title cut from Newman's recent album Harps and Angels, musical theater scholar Jack Viertel pitched the Mark Taper Forum a revue, named after that album. The smart and absorbing result, directed by Jerry Zaks (musical staging by Warren Carlyle), is a huge relief for the potholes it avoids. The game ensemble (Ryder Bach, Storm Large, Adriane Lenox, Michael McKean, Katey Sagal and Matthew Saldivar) hits more moments of authenticity and of Newman's looming perspective than in prior Newman revues, thanks in large part to Zaks' empathy for the songs' narrator-subjects, the cast's restraint and intelligence, and the terrific eight-piece orchestra (conducted by pianist Michael Roth; orchestrations by Roth and David O). Viertel has arranged a Newman potpourri with somewhat vague and arbitrary thematic linkages between the songs, some of which are character-driven, some parodies, and some political-historical lectures. It may not be possible to take so much material and carve it into probing themes on the stage which is exactly what the albums themselves accomplish. In trying to be an homage and ensnare so much, the individual songs come through clearer than the sum of them, while the most disturbing ditties, with the darkest insights into our collective pathologies ("Wedding in Cherokee County" and "Rednecks") haven't been included. Perhaps they would be too grating against the production's glitz. That glitz, reflected in Brian Gale's flashy lighting design, shines out oddly against the ruminative, brooding essence of Newman's music even his parodies and comedies. Newman is a closer cousin to Jacques Brel and Loudon Wainwright than to, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Much of the sound points to the former, much of the look points to the latter. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Dec. 22. (213) 628-2772.
Sun., Nov. 21, 7 p.m.; Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: Nov. 21. Continues through Dec. 22, 2010