Sweet of spirit, beguilingly old-fashioned and, alas, utterly unexciting, the musical “Captains Courageous” sails into the unlikely port of the Manhattan Theater Club after a long voyage that dates back almost a decade. This new staging, by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow, follows full productions at Washington’s Ford’s Theater in 1992 and the Goodspeed Opera House in 1994. Clearly the show has many admirers, but despite Meadow’s artful and handsome chamber production, it’s hard to see what inspired such enthusiasm for this nicely behaved but rather plain child. A perfect fit for regional theaters with small budgets and large family audiences, “Captains Courageous” is an unlikely vessel to be navigating the choppier waters of Gotham.
With music by Frederick Freyer and book and lyrics by Patrick Cook, the show is based on the 1937 movie of the same title, and it’s steeped in the simplicities of a black-and-white age. In the somewhat stiff opening scene, spoiled rich kid Harvey E. Cheyne (Brandon Espinoza) is kicked out of private school for general unruliness, whereupon his neglectful magnate dad (Michael DeVries) agrees to bring him on a transatlantic business voyage.
Espinoza is suitably obnoxious as he torments the crew aboard the ocean liner. When he tries to snag daddy’s straying attention by walking along the railing, one waits with delicious anticipation for him to fall overboard. Naturally he does, and is picked up by Portuguese immigrant fisherman Manuel (Treat Williams), one of a larger crew aboard a ship out from Gloucester, Mass., for three months, and not about to head in to port to bring little Harvey back to New York.
When the persnickety kid starts his foot-stamping, how-dare-you-feed-me-this-slop routine among the ship’s salty crew, you don’t need to have a compass — or to have seen the picture — to see where this boat is headed. Yes, Harvey is both softened and toughened by learning the value of hard work. Yes, a grudging respect is born among the hard-boiled lads as the kid learns the sailing ropes. Yes, the fatherly love that Harvey has been denied is slowly born in Manuel. The “little fish,” as Manuel rather cloyingly calls him, learns to be a man.
The storybook predictability of the show is not helped by the score’s monotonous tendencies. Freyer writes pretty, subtly insinuating melodies, but most of the songs are either sea-flavored solos (Williams’ thin tenor voice is sorely taxed by his heavy load of singing) or rousing anthems for the full chorus of sailors celebrating or lamenting some aspect of the fisherman’s life. Cook’s workmanlike lyrics aren’t particularly graceful, and the songs begin to seem interchangeable after awhile. Eventually it’s not just Derek McLane’s turntable set but the show itself that seems to be going in circles.
Meadow’s swift staging makes as much as she can of that stripped-down set. All the action takes place on a tilted wooden platform representing the ship’s deck. Beautifully rendered backdrops suggest huge expanses of sky, and they’re lit with suggestive coloring by Brian MacDevitt. Williams is a true charmer as Manuel, vocal limitations notwithstanding, while the rest of the cast performs ably in one-note parts.
But the minimalist production throws all the weight on the delicate show itself, and it’s not rich enough to support it. Both Harvey’s rescue and the storm climax cry out for more ambitious (and expensive) effects to give them their full dramatic due, for example. And with the all-male cast of 16 stomping up and down the turntable for virtually the show’s duration, one begins to get a perhaps too vivid idea of what three months at sea might feel like. Fantasies of bevies of chorus girls bursting out of the hold are hard to dismiss.
Perhaps that’s why the show’s sole standout song — significantly in neither of the overused idioms that the rest of the score relies on — is a comic ragtime romp, “Regular Guys,” in which Manuel and Harvey imagine the thrills of a night on the town when the ship pulls into port. The audience noticeably brightened up during its performance; by that point, late in the second act, we were all hungry to head ashore.