Randy Newman’s songs have always been character-based; they also set scenes, tell stories, and often have surprising twists and turns — everything that makes for good drama. And for an act and a half, South Coast Rep’s ambitious “The Education of Randy Newman” manages to make it feel as if the composer, often compared to Mark Twain as a great satirical observer of American life, has been writing one big stage musical all along. Alas, he wasn’t, and it shows. But it also doesn’t really matter. This intelligently staged, powerfully sung revue-that’s-almost-more satisfies with the caustic inspiration and over-arching buoyancy of Newman’s work.
The structural idea of the show was conceived by South Coast dramaturg Jerry Patch, who collaborated closely with Newman and musical director Michael Roth. The concept, and title, is borrowed from “The Education of Henry Adams,” a highly influential 19th century autobiography, written in a third-person voice and examining the author in the context of his time and place. The conceit basically provides an opportunity to lay over a coming-of-age tale to Newman’s unique brand of ironic songwriting.
After a prologue that takes the broad view, and includes the daring and beautiful “Sail Away,” the first act focuses on Newman’s childhood in New Orleans, where his mother’s family lived. The truth is that, after the war, Newman grew up almost solely in L.A., but by delaying his arrival on the West Coast the show has the opportunity to explore all of his songs about the South, like “Dixie Flyer,” which also provides some early-life narration, “New Orleans Wins the War,” “Louisiana 1927,” and “Kingfish.” Scott Waara, playing Newman throughout, observes wide-eyed all the characters, attitudes and bubbling tensions, especially racial ones — (“Birmingham,” “Rednecks,” “Roll with the Punches”) — swirling about him.
Ralph Funicello’s set is composed primarily of scrims that fly in and out and on which photographs are projected. The photos successfully set the stage, often very literally, for the songs; for example, black-and-white shots of a police parade accompany “Jolly Coppers on Parade.” Sometimes, the images are more complementary, like the projection of a giant pair of glasses for “Four Eyes,” depicting the terrifying first day of school. That number remains one of the show’s many highlights, with director-choreographer Myron Johnson making exceptionally creative use of children’s clothing and some giant Venetian blinds.
The first act ends with Newman’s arrival in Los Angeles (“I Love L.A.”), and the second act takes Newman into adulthood, where he becomes successful, marries (“Love Story”), snorts cocaine (“Miami”) and cheats on his wife (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”), gets divorced (“I Want You to Hurt Like I Do”), and then matures and falls in love a second time (“Days of Heaven,” “Feels Like Home”). There are a lot more songs as well, expressing the turbulent times in the background (“Song for the Dead”) and the selfishness of the financial elite (“It’s Money that Matters,” “My Life Is Good”).
The execution of the individual songs is excellent, and the band, led by Roth on the piano, is exceptionally tight. Minneapolis-based Johnson shows an almost unlimited ability to find different ways of presenting the material. The performers are all superb, with Jennifer Leigh Warren taking the music to the highest of the heights, and Gregg Henry, in a truly sterling performance, making the most of the best character roles — that is, the more evil ones.
The “education” part of the show really never pays off. As Newman, the very talented Waara is fundamentally miscast. He’s too rosy-cheeked to stand in for the not-so-pretty Newman, who comes off much more innocently than he should — the Mark Twain aspect of Newman comes through, the H.L. Mencken aspect doesn’t. The creators seem so determined to protect Newman from being misidentified with his characters that he never becomes more than a passive participant in his own life. As a result, the audience is kept at a distance from the sheer intelligence and sardonic wit that make Newman so special.
In order for “The Education of Randy Newman” to work as a dramatic narrative, and to be worthy of a long-term run, the character here needs a major epiphany that never comes. Newman would almost certainly need to write a couple of songs that would bridge some holes, especially the gaping one that sucks the energy out of the show with a good half-hour remaining. But it would be worth it for Newman to do so — there’s phenomenal potential here.