Musical numbers:”Gone,””Is This Fact?””Dance at the Salon,””Everyone Has Something to Hide,””How Young You Were Tonight,””I’m Saving Myself for a Soldier ,””The Choice Is Yours,””Fritzie,””No More Than a Moment,””This is Nice,””Maman, “”Not Now, Not Here,””Hello Yank,””I Don’t See Him Very Much Any More,””You Have No Idea,””What Might Have Been.”
The opening night of the original 1967 production of “Mata Hari” has gone down in theater lore as one of the great theatrical disasters. A musical as ill-fated as its heroine, “Mata” had sets that misbehaved, a lead actress who conspicuously scratched her nose — after her character had been executed — and a director (Vincente Minnelli) who gilded this dark, anti-war tale with all the glitz of an MGM musical. So giving “Mata Hari” a second chance is, if nothing else, a kindly act, but a charity that goes unrewarded: The York Theater Co.’s scaled-down production proves there was much more wrong with this tuner than production mishaps.
Even with sympathetic direction by its lyricist Martin Charnin, the musical comes off as stiff as its stuffy male lead role and as cramped as this no-frills production. Charnin’s blatant anti-war lyrics, no doubt daring during the Vietnam War era, now sound merely unsubtle and as dated as a Jacques Brel ballad. Edward Thomas’ score is not without sweet moments but, nearly devoid of any French flavor that the story could lend, generally comes off as middling show tune fare with a range no wider than Tin Pan Alley.
More damaging still, neither Charnin’s lyrics nor Jerome Coopersmith’s book gives life or vigor to the two lead characters. After more than two hours, Mata Hari herself remains a mystery, and not in the exotic, enigmatic manner one would hope. She’s under-written, that’s all.
In life, Mata Hari was Marguerite Geertruida Zelle, a Dutch dancer whose style was as exotic as the persona she invented — Mata Hari (Marguerite MacIntyre), enchantress from the East. She took Paris by storm during World War I and, in the musical’s telling, roused the suspicion and then the love of French secret service officer Henri LaFarge (Allen Fitzpatrick).
The stern, patriotic and happily married LaFarge suspects her of espionage as soon as the dancer hits town, although the source of his suspicion isn’t clearly explained. In any case, he recruits the famous seductress to spy for France, hoping to entrap her and prove that she actually is a German agent. Over time, of course, he falls for her and she for him, although nothing in the musical really explains their mutual attraction. Perhaps she represents a departure from his staid life, but what could the paunchy, middle-age LaFarge — as rigid and tiresome a character as ever led a musical — offer her? Go figure.
LaFarge’s love for the heroine receives the ultimate test when she is tried for espionage — on trumped-up charges, it turns out — and sentenced to the firing squad. LaFarge, believing lies from his higher-ups, testifies against her , failing both Mata Hari and the musical. He’s a dupe, and there’s nothing compelling about a character whose faith is as flimsy as the evidence that sends the heroine to her death. His last-minute change of heart, made only after he inadvertently learns the truth, is pure soap opera.
And what of Mata Hari? She dies, of course, and well before the audience has figured out who or what she really is. Coopersmith’s book gives some cursory background on the character, but her motivations — for espionage or love — remain elusive to the end. Actress MacIntyre can do little to salvage the role.
Along the way, Charnin and Thomas throw in various musical num-bers that further the anti-war message but do little for plot. Songs such as “Fritzie, “”Maman” and “Hello Yank” aren’t unpleasant in themselves, but they stop an already tedious production in its tracks. And all but a few songs sound as thoroughly American as the accents on stage.
James Morgan’s spare set and Keith Levenson’s keyboards-only musical accompaniment maintain the scaled-back mood of the production, not necessarily an advantage. Perhaps a musical as intrinsically flawed as “Mata Hari” should show some discretion, not peel away its veils.