In the 40-plus years they’ve been joined in marriage and work, prolific songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil have churned out dozens of pop hits for Bette Midler, Lionel Richie, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville, the Righteous Brothers, the Pointer Sisters, the Drifters and the Animals, among others. If any of those performers were to appear onstage to sing from the songbook, this revue would transform itself into a feel-good evening of nostalgic fun. But since only the songwriters are center stage, the show is something else — a charmless vanity production that should bring blushes to all cheeks.
Show’s running gag is that Mann has been trying unsuccessfully for years to break out as “a singer-songwriter with something to say.” If he doesn’t aspire to be Dylan or Springsteen, he might at least “cement his credibility” like his friend Carole King, one of the “very hungry and competitive” young songwriters who, along with Mann and Weil, got their start in the mid-’60s working for Don Kirshner in the storied Brill Building.
Commandeering the piano at center stage and looking mighty pleased with himself, Mann recalls the many times he came thisclose to losing his writer’s anonymity by cutting his own demos of can’t-miss tunes like “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” — only to have them snatched away from him and turned into hits by the likes of the Animals. Poor guy.
Like all those frustrated movie stars who really want to direct, the composer of such chartbusters as “Here You Come Again,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway,” “Only in America” and “Sometimes When We Touch” hangs onto his good-natured grin and professes pride in his eclectic body of work. But from his intensely dramatic attack on “Close to Heaven,” from the score he and Weil are writing for a stage musical version of the 1985 movie “Mask” with Cher and Eric Stoltz, it’s obvious the show’s running gag is no joke.
In point of fact, Mann did score one hit as a recording artist, and he reprises it here with toe-tapping, show-stopping gusto. But since this crowd-pleaser turns out to be “Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp Ba Bomp Ba Bomp),” which the composer wrote to the inspired satirical lyrics of Gerry Goffin, it kind of sucks all the gravitas out of his semi-serious bid for cred.
Although Mann just doesn’t cut it as a headliner, he’s Mr. Charisma compared with his partner, who gets all the talk time. As a lyricist, Weil has a knack for simple, declarative lyrics that define the spirit of a tough, gritty city for young minds that think in monosyllables. But the blunt language that works for single-thought songs like “Uptown,” “On Broadway” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” proves a deadening idiom for the history of their personal and musical partnership and the backstories of their songs. In addition, the war stories aren’t particularly contentious and the dish isn’t dishy.
More damaging for its future, the show is not in the least sophisticated — and we know it’s supposed to be sophisticated from the visual messages of Richard Maltby Jr.’s snazzy-looking production. On a stage all tricked up to look like a studio recording session, the floor is painted black, the baffleboard walls are black, the piano is black, the music stands are black, and the principals, the backup singers, and the band are all uniformly threaded in black.
Trouble is, the soul of the show is more of a bubblegum pink. We get a taste of that juicy flavor during one satisfying segment when the nifty trio of backup singers (Moeisha McGill, Jenelle Lynn Randall and Deb Lyons) break into a chick medley that includes “Walkin’ in the Rain,” “Sure the Boy I Love,” “Love How You Love Me” and “Blame It on the Bossa Nova.” But the moment is soon gone, and we’re back to the stodgy stars of the show, who wrote this stuff and can’t bear to give it up to the kids who can really do it justice.