Auds nostalgic for TV variety’s heyday will find Reprise!’s revival of Richard Rodgers’ “No Strings” comfortable as a Barcalounger. Romantic tuner set in chic Europe circa 1962 features such genre trappings as sketchy sets and a bystanding chorus jumping unbidden into musical numbers at the drop of a baton. If only Scott Bakula were using his “Quantum Leap” powers to magically transport us back to the Kraft Music Hall, but those impatient with Perry Como will find it tough to stay awake between numbers.
Those numbers, the tunes anyway, are the best feature of “No Strings,” especially in Ralph Burns’ cool-jazz-influenced original orchestrations, sans violins as per title and conducted by the reliable Gerald Sternbach. A Rodgers ballad like “The Sweetest Sounds” or “Look No Further” sweeps over and stays dreamily in the mind. His lyrics are mostly pedestrian and sometimes baffling (“I’m the duckiest little guest you’ve ever met/You’re the luckiest/As of yet”), but Reprise trims the more repetitious choruses; Rodgers only dabbled in the lyricist’s art and wisely kept his day job.
Crafted by Samuel Taylor (“Sabrina Fair”) in his already-passe high comedy style, libretto concerns the not-so-hard times of two Americans in Paris: Pulitzer novelist David Jordan (Bakula), who parties and sponges off the rich now that his talent has dried up, and high fashion model Barbara Woodruff (Sophina Brown), protege of a wealthy roue who is content not sleeping with her while he awaits her heart. The degree to which that synopsis is remotely credible may indicate a patron’s susceptibility to show’s appeal.
None of it was any more scintillating in ’62 than now, except that Barbara is tacitly (the fact is never mentioned) African-American. An interracial romance was hot stuff back then, as turning the couple’s first kiss into the act one closer attests, but it barely raises an eyebrow today. The only remaining conflict is her nagging him to quit partying, “write what you know” and move back to New England — which is to say there’s no conflict at all.
At least when show preemed, and Barbara realized that she “could never join the ladies’ sewing circle” back in Maine, one knew what she meant and why married life outside anything-goes Europe would be difficult. With race now, in the context of timid “No Strings” anyway, a non-issue, even an attentive listener can be forgiven for not understanding what’s at stake when the couple gets together and why they’re torn apart.
Bakula is likeable but mopey — his David never seems to enjoy himself whether at work or at bacchanal — and if the dazzling Brown goes flat in her upper register her line readings are properly unfussy. We’d all be better off if they played with as much heat as their flimsy roles allow, but helmer Kay Cole encourages them to saunter through their on-again, off-again romance.
Sauntering describes show’s overall rhythm as well, with every entrance and exit executed at the same measured pace and Christine Kellogg’s choreography never more ambitious than a full-company box step. Having seen her Vincente Minnelli movies Cole knows how to steer a chorus line into stylized poses, but when staging that lacks urgency is applied to a plot that lacks urgency, the final blackout is a long time in coming.
Given the material they’re handed, cast is little more than adequate with the exception of Ruth Williamson, earning most of the evening’s laughs as a Vogue editor in a dead-on impersonation of Kay Thompson in “Funny Face.”
Now and again Bets Malone offers a break from the general torpor as an Oklahoman heiress serving as the meal ticket of David’s set. Though saddled with score’s absolute nadir (“Eager Beaver”) and a trio of hideous outfits that scream “ugly American,” Malone possesses musical comedy panache and an amusing lewdness that one would love to see applied to a substantial role next time.
Bob Mackie and Joe McFate’s costumes reflect the haute couture 1960s look whenever they’re not cruelly satirizing that selfsame look, but few of the clothes are flattered by Steven Young’s peculiar lighting, which creates muddy shadows and bathes Bradley Kaye’s platformed unit set and sheer draperies (it all looks like “The Lawrence Welk Show”) in washes of pink and bilious green. Most unchic.