Like the Antrobus family that survives one disaster after another only to start again with renewed optimism, so goes “All About Us,” John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical based on Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” While this latest version of the 1942 Pulitzer Prize-winning work may be more true to the playwright’s original text, a satisfying musical whole still proves elusive and — as Sabina, the story’s eternal domestic goddess would say — remains at “sixes and sevens.”
Originally called “Over and Over,” which lived and died at Virginia’s Signature Theater in 1999, the show has weathered a series of revisions, workshops and title changes. If it survives this latest incarnation (the not-for-profit Westport Country Playhouse has commercial enhancement in place and transfer hopes), it will be by the skin of its teeth. A lot of work still has to be done.
The approaching Ice Age notwithstanding, Gabriel Barre’s production has trouble warming up. Indeed, this long, intermissionless version misses its musical spurs, not to mention its center. What seems most lacking is the kind of opener that might place the show in a wilder Wilder world, embracing the writer’s deconstructionism and epic themes with joyous abandon. There’s nothing here to prep the audience for the show’s strange musical journey. One longs for a Kander and Ebb number that would pull it all together before setting things loose in the story’s crazy, loving way. Similarly absent is a closing number that’s more of a wow than a wink.
Instead, what you have is a well-crafted edit of the three-act play by theater vet Joseph Stein, with a series of numbers — some better than others — mixed in with performances still searching for their characters or confidence.
As Mr. Antrobus, head of the First Family of Man, Shuler Hensley has rugged looks and gravitas but lacks the humor, heart and intellectual curiosity to lead humankind’s survival. (This eternal Adam musters some enthusiasm in “The Wheel,” but the song about his latest invention fails to get much traction.) As Mrs. A., Yvette Freeman variously frets, nags and nervously nurtures. Cady Huffman has potential to be a splendid Sabina, the Antrobuses’ overheated dish of a maid (and civilization’s femme fatale), but her character doesn’t come into its own until later in the show.
You know you’re in trouble when some of the most memorable numbers are performed by supporting characters or extinct animals. The Mammoths (Eric Michael Gillett and Drew Taylor) have a cozy number called “Warm.” “Nice People,” chillingly sung by troubled son Henry (sharply played by Carlo Alban), shows the songwriting team at its fiercest. And when after the first act, a quartet of actors (Michael Thomas Holmes, Frank Vlastnik, Michael James Leslie and Daniel Marcus) step out of their minor roles to sing the playful “The Discussion” — about how they don’t “get” what the show is all about — you could feel the audience rise to the neat trick of the song, and the challenge.
Things improve when the musical fast-forwards to the Mammals’ Convention at Atlantic City.
Looking like a sparrow who just swallowed a hawk, Eartha Kitt as Esmeralda, the Fortune Teller, brings her own brand of other-world charisma to the stage. She casts an eccentric spell in “Rain,” forecasting civilization’s wet doom. Mr. Antrobus may have invented the alphabet but Kitt owns all the letters as she purrs out vowels, stretches out syllables and spits out consonants with diva authority, finally giving the show some kick and surreal authenticity.
She also allows for some of the show’s sharpest writing. When Sabina asks Esmeralda for her fortune, Kitt answers with a delivery than comes from eons of experience: “You’re a woman and you’re poor. You have no fortune.”
This second part also shows off Sabina to a greater degree. Huffman rises to the occasion as a beauty contestant at the convention, scoring in a sideshow of a song called “World Peace” and in the seductive “You Owe It To Yourself,” which brings out K&E’s naughtiness.
However, Mrs. Antrobus’ big number, “He Always Comes Home to Me,” evokes a darker version of a tune from “Dance a Little Closer,” a show that also tried and failed to musicalize an end-of-the-world play, “Idiot’s Delight.” Several other songs (“When Poppa Comes Home,” “Lullaby”) feel as if they should have more emotional or narrative weight, but don’t.
Stein’s script has some insider fun with Wilder’s Fourth Wall-busting moments, with the actors stepping out of characters as themselves (“Why can’t we have musicals like we used to?” asks Cady/Sabina) as an exasperated stage manager (Tony Freeman) tries to hold the show together with pleas and firepower amid the chaos. (“Who’s the Equity Deputy on this show?”)
But too often the freewheeling narrative rushes at warp speed, careening from whimsical to profound without giving key moments (Mr. A.’s decision to keep the fire lit, his infidelity with Sabina, the pregnancy of daughter Gladys) their emotional or logical (even in a Wilder sense) due. The character of Gladys (Samantha Futerman) is especially sketchy.
For the musical’s last section, world war emerges as the latest catastrophe, with bad seed son Henry (read Cain) heading the forces of evil and confronting his father. Amid these final conflicts, Stein merges with Wilder for some philosophical musings but the climax still is wanting. Whether it’s because of Hensley’s over-emotive delivery or the song itself, what should be the show’s anthem of human resiliance, “The Skin of Our Teeth,” fails to land effectively.
As in the play, the last word goes to Sabina who, at the end of the day, prefers to go to the movies during a break from the ongoing apocalypse. If only there were enough on stage to compel her to stay.