“Harps and Angels,” Center Theater Group’s celebration of local lyrical laureate Randy Newman, is a sure cure for wintertime blues. Originally crafted for record albums and film scores, Newman’s work isn’t ideally suited to the theatrical medium as several previous efforts (“Faust,” “The Education of Randy Newman”) have evidenced. But as a showcase for his whiskey-soaked melodies and incisive poetic gifts, this revue slips by artfully and painlessly to leave — in the words of his anthemic hometown shout-out “I Love L.A.” –evvuh-body/Verruh happy.
Jack Viertel seems to have earned his “conceived” credit by opting for the “Ain’t Misbehavin'” approach: First, pull the catalog into themes (American types; progressive politics; male-female relationships). Then convey the flavor of the artist’s milieux (West Coast complacency vs. Gulf Coast sass) in little one-act plays, while keeping autobiography to a minimum. Evening’s MVP Michael McKean sifts Newman’s grumpiness through his own sunny, ex-hippie attitude, a tuneful variation on his sparkling turn in last season’s “Superior Donuts” in Gotham.
McKean is a persuasive Newman avatar in the rueful “Potholes” or the guilt-ridden film noir “Shame.” Yet all six performers find amusing occasion to slip into the singer-songwriter’s patented jambalaya drawl, especially when they truly connect with emotions born of New Orleans swing and sorrow. (It’s more amusing still when you consider Newman left for Tinseltown at age 7. You can take the boy out of the bayou …)
Matthew Saldivar’s working-class swagger in “Birmingham” morphs into rampant egomania in the upscale “My Life Is Good,” while Adriane Lenox pulls off with aplomb a tough assignment as one-woman Mardi Gras queen and gospel choir; she shatters as she mourns the once and future Katrina disaster of “Louisiana 1927.”
That was a large storm, and Storm Large storms large as the personification of the tough, independent ladies — oh, let’s say it, broads — Newman has famously lauded and struggled with in music and, presumably, life. (Her sizzling seduction of bespectacled Ryder Bach is one version of “You Can Leave Your Hat On” you won’t forget.)
But perhaps because Newman hasn’t evinced much artistic interest in callow youth or women of a certain age, Bach and Katey Sagal never seem especially comfortable in Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s clothes or the material they’re handed, yet each possesses enough presence and pipes to command the stage when asked to do so.
Though “Harps and Angels” constructs several potent ensemble pieces, a half century of solo recording makes for a parade of individual numbers that becomes wearying after a time. Newman’s songs tend to lack a theatrical build and final “button,” petering away in the manner of album tracks (even “I Love L.A.,” a seemingly ideal finale for both acts, winds up inconclusively). The price paid is a certain lack of excitement, but there’s no diminution of fun, or of respect for Newman’s accomplishments.
It’s hard to tell where Jerry Zaks’ helming leaves off and Warren Carlyle’s musical staging begins, a compliment to their complementary styles. Marc Rosenthal’s projections — whether confined to small flying screens or encompassing full-rear-wall vistas of American sky — and Brian Gale’s lights beautifully place Newman’s mood pieces in a grand but never too grandiose context.