Theater is like cookery: You can assemble all the right ingredients but sometime the souffle just won’t rise. “Paradise Found” is helmed by Hal Prince and Susan Stroman; Mandy Patinkin and John McMartin head the cast; and the score comes courtesy of Johann Strauss II. So why are their combined efforts — and, boy, is this show effortful — so dismayingly dreadful? The biggest problem is Richard Nelson’s book, an adaptation of a tale of disguises and surprises in mid-nineteenth century Vienna, that lurches between extremes of tone and taste.
The lame, operetta-style first act, which takes off dramatically only about five minutes before intermission, is beset by entirely tension-free scene-setting and character introduction. Events are quasi-narrated by a more-than-faintly precious Patinkin, whose famed falsetto is put to (over)use in the role of the benign but naive Eunuch to the ancient Shah of Persia (McMartin).
Despite having hundreds of wives, the Shah cannot rouse himself to become aroused. Upon arriving in Vienna, he espies the inconveniently married Empress and declares she must be his.
Anxious to avoid a diplomatic catastrophe, our Eunuch and his new friend the Baron (Shuler Hensley) arrange for the Baron’s twentysomething whorehouse girlfriend Mizzi (Kate Baldwin) to impersonate the Empress and bed the ancient Shah, a queasy event depicted offstage in enough loudly amplified puffing, grunting and squealing to make one prudish.
There are similar shenanigans at the brothel and in the bedroom of the soap manufacturer’s wife, where everyone races around in search of (mystifyingly overplayed) pleasure. But farce completely relies on jeopardy, and here there’s none. And note to designer Beowulf Borrit whose unatmospheric Perspex sets overfill the Menier Chocolate Factory stage: If people need to hide in a closet, build one sturdy enough for the doors to close.
Halfway through the second half, the mood darkens. His reputation ruined, the Baron considers suicide. Shunting forward 15 years, we rediscover him destitute. It now becomes clear he and Mizzi are the focus. Yet despite sterling work from Hensley — almost the only person whose dignity remains intact — the gear change is too abrupt. It’s too late to ask audiences to engage emotionally with such hitherto preposterous figures.
Of all people, Prince knows that waltz musicals can work — step forward “A Little Night Music” — but press-ganging Strauss hits from “Die Fledermaus” or reworking “Wiener Blut” as “Feeling Good” is more a conceit than a musical theater idea. Though lyrically adequate, too many numbers lack drive or dynamism. And the eight-piece band is a little too heavy on electronic keyboard to sound authentic.
What this material needs above all is charm, a quality entirely absent, especially in the costumes, which are garish and busy enough to register at Madison Square Garden. In this tiny house, they look vulgar.
The now dubious oriental “exoticism” of “Paradise Found” is reminiscent of “Kismet,” a show that appeared dated at its Broadway premiere in 1953. That so much talent could have attached itself to a new but equally moribund tuner is baffling.