BD Wong's vehicle, first unveiled in 1975, inspires more admiration than warmth.
In the opening moments of “Herringbone,” the unique musical fable now occupying La Jolla Playhouse’s black-box space, the affably sinister title character announces, “What’s life without a window ledge?” For a thesp, few window ledges are narrower than single-handedly performing 11 roles and 17 songs (including duets and production numbers), and BD Wong proves triumphantly up to the challenge even though his vehicle, first unveiled in 1975, inspires more admiration than warmth.
Flannery O’Connor, that peerless chronicler of the damaged, would surely find kinship with librettist Tom Cone’s haunted youth in 1929 Alabama, whose life story (narrated by his older self) is intended obviously to critique certain aspects of wish fulfillment in the so-called American character.
The typical tuner “I want” song here becomes the “I don’t want” anthem “Not President, Please,” in which timid George Nookin prays to resist his parents’ dreams of greatness. But as a dead relative’s proverb reminds them, “Culture during hard times does real well.”
A perfect storm of Depression-era need, accident and supernatural intervention plops the 37-year-old soul of a deceased midget hoofer into the lad’s eight-year-old body, and Wong shifts with aplomb between the bug-eyed, stiff-backed kid and the loosey-goosey, gravel-voiced Lou.
Once the put-upon half of comedy team the Chicken and the Frog, Lou wreaks revenge on his cluck of an ex-partner (one of several plot segues weakening the overall fabric). Now he’s gotta sing, gotta dance and George has gotta go along with it, working the vaudeville circuit to seductive Hollywood, where Lou will court an old flame and disaster, in that order.
The satire lacks point and payoff, but there’s endless fascination (and a remarkable lack of audience confusion) as Wong effortlessly shape-shifts among his roles, both vocally and in carefully selected characteristic poses: a fluttering hand for Mother; outstretched arms for Lou; gum-chewing and hip-twitching for main squeeze Dot. Under Roger Rees’ direction, Wong is especially strong with props real and imaginary, one speaker’s gestures transforming into those of the next with balletic elegance.
Hearing in the Skip Kennon/Ellen Fitzhugh score the clash of historical blues and nervous modernism, choreographer Darren Lee both honors and critiques America’s choreographic past in routines like “Little Mister Tippy Toes,” revealing the flair and flop-sweat to which all dancers are prey.
As a song-and-dance man, Wong is made rather than born, but his execution is game, gaining moral and artistic support from prodigious accompanist-music director Dan Lipton and sturdy bass and percussion backup.
Other magicians are in evidence. Endless surprises lurk in and around Eugene Lee’s concentric turntables set and Christopher Akerlind’s paisley-inspired lighting effects. Even costumer William Ivey Long contributes legerdemain, a tiny herringbone suit (source of George’s stage name) serving as a stand-in for those who would manipulate the boy.
Still, it’s hard to care much about Herringbone. Stories like “Magic” and “Dead of Night” benefit from the enormous tension when host-ventriloquist and doppelganger-dummy wrestle for supremacy. But boy, George is an empty vessel whose ultimate rebellion comes out of nowhere, leaving us little to transfer to older George in the way of emotional connection.
Moreover, for a character who needily reveals, “If I don’t tell my story every night, I don’t sleep so good,” Rees and Wong’s sunny-Jim treatment fails to emphasize the psychic price Herringbone is paying in his narration. If prior to the climax we were more often reminded of the strain under which George acts out his tale, we might be more apt to sympathize with him — and more readily see ourselves in him as well.