The fabled team of Rodgers and Hammerstein hit the skids in 1955 with their flop musical, “Pipe Dream.” Most of the male characters were indeed residents of a flophouse; the female characters lived in a nearby cathouse. If this sounds atypical of the authors of “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” one can imagine how disgruntled ticket buyers were. “Pipe Dream” quickly closed and all but disappeared, unlamented. Leave it to the folks at Encores! to rescue the piece from oblivion and, in a careful and loving manner, demonstrate the strengths of this buoyant but irremediably flawed musical.
John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday” was a post-war sequel to his earlier novel “Cannery Row.” Both dealt with the raffish denizens of Monterey on the Pacific Coast. Why shouldn’t Rodgers and Hammerstein — who had in 1949 taken James Michener’s collection of “Tales of the South Pacific” and turned it into a musical theater classic — do the same with Steinbeck?
But this tuner about an aimless marine biologist (Will Chase) and a shiftless-but-spunky girl (Laura Osnes) — who soon moves herself into “The Happiest House on the Block” — is stubbornly uncertain of what it aims to be. Here is a plot in which boy meets girl and he immediately sings a song about slimy snails, eels and octopuses in the tide pool.
The other main characters are the local madam (Leslie Uggams) and some lovable halfwits, along with one comical quarterwit. “Pipe Dream” quickly disintegrates into nothingness of the “what could they have been thinking of?” variety, and the second act is all but invisible.
Lost in the shambles, though, is an intriguing score that intermittently shines; the songwriters might have temporarily lost their direction, but not their talent, especially Rodgers, who underwent cancer surgery during rehearsals. “Everybody’s Got a Home but Me,” “The Man I Used to Be,” “Suzy Is a Good Thing,” “All at Once You Love Her” are good songs by any measure, and here they soar across the footlights.
Although Encores! has spawned Broadway productions including the longrunning revival of “Chicago,” the mission of the series (in its 19th season) is not to produce commercially viable hits but to rescue little-heard shows from oblivion, at least for one weekend. That’s precisely what happens with “Pipe Dream.” We are unlikely to hear this score in a theater again, ever, but it’s wonderful to have the chance to hear it.
The meticulous musical restoration by Bruce Pomahac is matched by fine singing performances from the two leading ladies. Osnes, who earlier this season provided fireworks as Bonnie Parker in “Bonnie and Clyde,” makes an impressive showing as the awkward heroine Suzy. Uggams undertakes the role of the resident madam, written for Metropolitan Opera star Helen Traubel. The vocal demands have been adjusted and the results are a distinct improvement, with Uggams shining throughout the evening. Chase, too, makes the most of the oddly conceived role of Doc.
“Pipe Dream” is best known, if at all, for its truncated original Broadway cast album, which sounds like it was recorded in the Lincoln Tunnel. The biggest and most delightful surprise of the evening is how good much of it actually sounds, with Rob Berman leading a full 30-piece orchestra in the original orchestrations by Russell Bennett. Add in the voices and the performances and we’ve got a “Pipe Dream” definitely worth hearing, at least for hardcore fans of the genre.