The first and last time audiences saw this musical adaptation of William Inge’s 1949 play “Come Back, Little Sheba” was in July 1974 in Chicago, with Kaye Ballard as Lola. The reason for its disappearance thereafter is clear enough from this new White Barn Theater production. The passing years have been particularly unkind to the works of Inge — even the play may no longer be viable. In any case, creators Clint Ballard Jr. (music) and Lee Goldsmith (book and lyrics) didn’t re-envision the play as a musical but merely cut it down to make room for some mostly sappy songs.
Emphasizing the fact that “Sheba” is a play with songs rather than a musical is the set, a realistically shabby, heavily furnished kitchen and living room that would be fine for the play but is far too confining for a musical.
As the show opens, a six-piece band — fielding 17 instruments for the expert original orchestrations by Broadway’s Ralph Burns — plays a gently bluesy melody that segues into the opening song, “Lola, Pretty Lola.”
It’s sung by an identically dressed quartet of Lola’s dream lovers and is the first warning that Inge’s sad tale of a married couple trapped in a love-hate-guilt relationship is not going to be helped by the score and lyrics.
The songs all too often come in the oddest places, never more insensitively than when while Lola worries about her on-the-wagon husband going off on a drunken binge: She and her four dream lovers are given a jolly song-and-dance number, “Dream Girl.” Throughout, the score sounds like an uncomfortable compromise between the popular music of the late ’40s and the music of the period when “Sheba” came into being.
The roles of Lola and Doc are equally important, but neither Donna McKechnie nor Mark Peters is up to the task, dramatically or musically. As their fresh young boarder Marie, who disturbs Doc by reminding him of Lola as a young girl (he got her pregnant and had to marry her and drop out of medical school), Rachel Hardin is suitably bright-eyed.
As her narcissistic jock boyfriend Turk, Braden Miles has been unwisely encouraged to do an Elvis Presley impersonation by director Leslie B. Cutler.