“Hello Again,” Michael John LaChiusa’s elegant daisy-chain of a musical, is a promise fulfilled. The author’s earlier works — from his compositions for “Bella, Belle of Byelorussia” to last month’s “First Lady Suite”– certainly suggested a sharp new talent, however offbeat. But arrival has come only with this sophisticated adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde.”
At once lusty and graceful (thanks in no small measure to director/choreographer Graciela Daniele), “Hello Again” is a soulful rumination on matters of the heart and the loins. The twain don’t meet in this bittersweet song cycle, despite the desperate, searching attempts of its lonely characters.
Keeping true to Schnitzler’s central device, LaChiusa employs a Farmer-in-the-Dell structure of sexual trysting: Within its 10 scenes, the Whore takes the Soldier, the Soldier takes the Nurse, the Nurse takes the College Boy, etc. The circle of seduction completes itself when the final character, the Senator, shares a bed with the Whore.
In LaChiusa’s telling, though, everyone ultimately stands alone. The coupling , for all its passion and intensity, does nothing so much as map the chasm between love and lust. In lesser hands, that could amount to a succession of sad-sack weepers, but not here. LaChiusa and Daniele give “Hello Again” an emotional scope as wide as the musical’s temporal reach.
And that’s quite a range: LaChiusa stretches Schnitzler’s conceit over 90 -plus years. Each of the 10 scenes is set in a different decade of this century, so that the episode featuring the Whore and the Soldier circa 1900 gives way to a World War II encounter between the Soldier and the Nurse. The time-bouncing allows LaChiusa some storytelling fun, as when a flirtatious young hustler aboard the Titanic resurfaces in 1976 as a bell-bottomed disco boy.
Show’s music benefits from the same sense of playfulness. Although LaChiusa resists locking himself into the musical forms of the various decades, he does adopt and adapt where he sees fit, from boogie-woogie harmonies of the ’40s to pop balladry of the ’50s. Despite the pastiche, though, the mostly sung-through musical has a seamlessness that owes more than a little to the operetta stylings of Lapine/Sondheim.
Playing against Derek McLane’s spare settings — a solitary Victorian lamppost gives way to a mod sofa and orange TV set — the 10-member cast is unfailing. John Cameron Mitchell, certainly one of New York’s most dependable treats, can do wonders with a clever line. Emerging from the bathroom on the doomed luxury liner, his coquettish hustler gets the biggest laugh of the evening with, “Doesn’t the boat feel kind of tilty?”
Other cast members are just as good, with Carolee Carmello making a strong impression as a Young Wife guilt-ridden by a sleazy moviehouse encounter in one episode and longing for the encounter’s lost passion in later life. Entire cast sings as well as it acts.
Daniele uses her choreographer’s eye for movement and balance even when the cast isn’t dancing. The moviehouse scene, with its back-row chorus of shush-ers, is as finely tuned as any chorus line. If a couple of the broader comedy sketches seem like palate-clearers, it’s not for any weakness in staging.
Some might quibble with LaChiusa’s relentlessly downbeat take on the elusiveness of love, but the real argument raised by “Hello Again” has less to do with the musical’s heartsick subjects than New York’s theatrical traditions. In a season when Tony Award nominators might actually have to consider such high-tech schlock as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” or just plain schlock as “Cyrano,” doesn’t it make sense to welcome serious new talent, Off Broadway or not, to the season-end festivities?