"Summer stock on Broadway!!" says the zipper sign above the marquee of Symphony Space, leaving it to the viewer to determine whether this is a promise or a threat. "Manhattan Madcaps of 1924" strings together two dozen Rodgers & Hart songs in an understandably tuneful, if somewhat shaky, narrative.
“Summer stock on Broadway!!” says the zipper sign above the marquee of Symphony Space, leaving it to the viewer to determine whether this is a promise or a threat. “Manhattan Madcaps of 1924” strings together two dozen Rodgers & Hart songs in an understandably tuneful, if somewhat shaky, narrative. The good-natured charm of the affair outweighs the inevitable awkwardness that creeps in as song cues start to pile up indiscriminately.The so-called “newly discovered ‘lost’ Rodgers & Hart musical” is the first of a promised annual series to be produced at the venue’s intimate Leonard Nimoy Thalia. Isaiah Sheffer, artistic director and co-founder of Symphony Space, has written the libretto under the pen name Jerzy Turnpike, which provides a pretty good idea of the level of humor; Sheffer is credited, in small type, with the translation. Story takes four couples — one romantic, three comic — on a journey to and through New York. Casey falls in love with cowgirl Cassie; Gracie elopes with Gary; director Johnny falls for actress Jeanette; and Manhattan Mamie has eyes for mayoral candidate Stonewall Moskowitz. (Don’t blame Sheffer for Stonewall Moskowitz, and don’t blame Larry Hart either. The name and the lyric come from Irving Caesar, who wrote “The Stonewall Moskowitz March” with Rodgers; every rhyme is created by adding the suffix “-owitz,” and it’s a bit of a stretch.) The songs are the thing, of course. Sheffer and musical director Lanny Meyers have chosen to ignore the hits; while many of the songs will be familiar to R&H fans, the typical theatergoer will recognize “Manhattan” and “Spring is Here” and little else. All to the good, as there are about 40 great-to-better-than-average Rodgers and Hart songs that are all but forgotten. Immediately following the prologue, the cast launches into “I Gotta Get Back to New York” — a jaunty charmer written for Al Jolson — and the gimmicky concept promises to work just fine. Twelve songs into the show, though, Jerzy Turnpike starts to back up. The bridgework becomes flimsier than flimsy; one song ends, another two characters come on and offer a brief interchange, and it’s onto the next song. One character, we are told several times, used to work for the circus. Why? Because in her big song there’s a line about being on a trapeze. (This is an especially fine if forgotten waltz, “Over and Over Again,” from “Jumbo.”) That’s the way “Manhattan Madcaps” is built. The laughs come mostly from Mr. Hart; a few strong jokes would help. After a while, it becomes a case of eight characters in search of a song cue. The friendly cast acquits itself nicely, for the most part; Howard Kaye, Nick Verina and Katie Allen sing well, while Christine Bokhour and Sidney J. Burgoyne help shore up the humor. Ivy Austin, sad to say, has apparently been instructed to comport herself like Carol Burnett playing Shirley Temple — a risky thing to do if you’re not Burnett. Her songs are gagged up, in some cases harmfully so. Neither Annette Jolles’ direction nor Regina Larkin’s choreography are especially helpful; some of the dances seem markedly clumsy. Music sounds good, though, with Meyers leading Todd Sullivan (on violin and viola) and Yair Evnine (on cello and guitar); the piano-violin-guitar combine surprises and pleases the ear. Production elements are of the painted plywood variety, but effective enough under the circumstances. For a three-week run of “summer stock on Broadway,” the lightweight but exceedingly friendly “Manhattan Madcaps of 1924” fills the bill.