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Somewhere, Under the Rainbow

The essence of Shame: McKean and Large in Harps and Angels
PHOTO BY CRAIG SCHWARTZ

There have now been at least four attempts by theatrical producers to stage Randy Newman's songs as a cabaret-revue. 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, which is more a comment on us than on him. Newman's fame comes from a combination of his music-industry family (three uncles who were film-score composers); his soundtracks for such films as Ragtime, Awakenings and Disney's Toy Story series; and a couple of pop hits, "Short People" and "I Love L.A." — both of which are testosterone-fueled parodies of, respectively, bigotry and absurd civic jingoism. The ironies were lost on entire swaths of adoring fans, including the L.A. City Council, which named "I Love L.A." the city's official song — despite lyrics, cheerfully shouted, such as: "Look at that bum over there/He's down on his knees/Look at these women! ..."

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. On his album Good Old Boys, dedicated to the mind-set of the Deep South, a song called "Wedding in Cherokee County" summarizes the apprehension of a groom staring adoringly at his soon-to-be wife:

"Her papa was a midget/Her mama was a whore/Her granddad was a newsboy 'til he was 84 (and what a slimy old bastard he was)/Man don't you think I know she hates me/Don't you think I know she's no good/If she knew how she'd be unfaithful to me/I think she'd kill me if she could/Maybe she's crazy, I don't know/Maybe that's why I love her so."

Newman sings this plaintively and without a glimmer of judgment. Without a stage setting or a libretto swirling around it, the song shines a laser beam onto one character's soul, a character who could have been plucked from any number of plays by Tennessee Williams, or any number of novels by William Faulkner. No wonder theater producers salivate when they hear such music.

Paradoxically, more often than not, when musical-theater actors start crooning Newman's songs, they follow bigger-than-life instincts, which lead to parodies of such characters. At least, this is what happened at the Roxy in the early 1980s, when Des McAnuff staged a revue of Randy Newman songs as a warm-up for La Jolla Playhouse's 1983 revue, The Education of Randy Newman.

It also happened to a lesser degree in 2000, when South Coast Repertory gave its stage to the Newman oeuvre, in a show that borrowed one of the songwriter/composer's typically sardonic titles, Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong.

(A recent L.A. Times story miscredited these shows at the wrong theaters — misinformation that's now been picked up by numerous websites and blogs.)

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, just opened at the Music Center and 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). The musicians sit parked elevated behind the stage, while moving panels expose or conceal them behind projections (by Marc I. Rosenthal) that are sometimes abstract, sometimes literal — streetscapes of New Orleans and Los Angeles. (Stephan Olson designed the set.)

Large's deft and wistful rendition of "Real Emotional Girl" — so plucked from the marrow — reveals how underused she is through the rest of the revue.

The production's strengths come from wry understatement, particularly by Newman stand-in McKean, who croons later songs that reflect themes of mortality, the pathetic humor of a guy humiliating himself ("Shame") by trying to buy back his lost youth from a stripper (Large), and the long-view wisdom that comes with age. In safari dress (costumes by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz), McKean's nicely modulated rendition of "Sail Away" is a pitch by a slave trader to Africans on their continent (whose projected faces loom overhead) on the virtues of a new life in America. ("We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay.") The music is unutterably, swooningly romantic, juxtaposed against his unutterably barbaric agenda. The vision comes from the horrifying intersection of the music and the lyrics, and McKean knows well enough to leave it alone. Ditto the glorious Lenox, who sings a reprise; her being black doubles the irony.

Also scintillating is when Newman's original intent gets reversed with an updated insight. For example, "You Can Leave Your Hat On" reveals the sexual fetish of a man ordering a woman to strip. Here, it's gender-reversed so that the sex object is a woman's boy-toy.

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. (The decimation of continents by "The Great Nations of Europe" features Sagal using a professorial pointer.) 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.

This is the best Randy Newman revue seen so far, reflecting a profound understanding of the range of Newman's music and worldview. Yet 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.

Cornerstone Theater Company's Michael John Garcés recently noted a distinction between theaters that obsess on "product" as their salvation as opposed to those whose productions are dedicated to an exploration, where the end result is unknown at the beginning of the process.

"A theater focused on product," he said, "is not having a conversation with its audience."

This is among the reasons that Network of Ensemble Theaters' Los Angeles Micro-Fest (Dec. 3-5, at the Atwater Village Theater) has selected a sampling of theater and dance companies presenting mostly works in process. These companies have exhibited a passion to start with a scintillating idea, and then to explore that idea in order to chart the unknown territory of where that exploration may lead. I was asked to curate this Micro-Fest.

The main entries by companies from L.A. feature American war stories from the 19th century — that of a Polish soldier thrust onto the American battlefield (Critical Mass Performance Group), and a story of American soldiers defecting to the Mexican army during the Mexican-American War (Watts Village Theater). There's a saga of women's eroticism and resistance on the Indian subcontinent (the Post Natyam Collective). The Ghost Road Company will present the surreal landscape of an estranged son returning to his rural home, in Stranger Things. In a full production not from Los Angeles is Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut, a yarn of conjured reality woven from albums of found photographs (Rumble Productions and Theatre Replacement, Canada). In the other full production, Two-Headed Dog performs its anticlown show, Clowntown City Limits, a Beckettian vaudeville of marginal comedians, seesawing between resentment and reconciliation to their fate.

HARPS AND ANGELS | Music and lyrics by RANDY NEWMAN, conceived by JACK VIERTEL | 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.; through Dec. 22 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org

MICRO-FEST: L.A. | ATWATER VILLAGE THEATER, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | Dec. 3-5 | ensembletheaters.net

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