“Secondhand Lions,” the 2003 New Line Cinema pic that inspired the stage musical now getting its world premiere from Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater, got knocked by critics for being schmaltzy and a little dull but leads Haley Joel Osment, Michael Caine and Robert Duvall generated enough sympathy to gross $47 million worldwide. The tuner version, developed by Warner Bros. Theater Ventures with an eye toward Broadway, can’t be accused of either schmaltz or dullness, but it lacks one thing the film had going for it — the touching three-way relationship at its heart.
Writer/director Tim McCanlies’ film was a tender tale of a fatherless boy and the two curmudgeonly uncles who reluctantly take him in. But from the outset, the stage adaptation feels overcaffeinated.
The boy Walter and his mother Mae, portrayed in the movie as a misfit boy and an insecure, inept mother, are played here by Johnny Rabe and Kendra Kassebaum as a precocious smart aleck and a sassy gold-digger, respectively. Why two powerful personalities like this need to be bailed out by rich uncles is a mystery, but we meet mother and son at the uncles’ dilapidated Texas farm, where Mae belts out a country-tinged vision of her future (“The Fort Worth College of Court Reporting”) and then ditches Walter and runs.
The action then moves back and forth between the uncles’ ramshackle homestead in the present day and flashbacks to their glamorous, globe-trotting past. Everyone introduced along the way is extra-high octane: Walter’s brainy, super-spunky neighbor Jane (Sophia Anne Caruso); his uncles in their salad days as young bucks in the French Foreign Legion (Jared Michael Brown and Kevin Earley); and the uncles’ nemesis, a gleefully evil sultan (Jason Danieley). Even the captive Samira (Jenny Powers), whom the young uncles set out to rescue, is an alpha princess, combat-ready and fiercely independent.
The uncles’ older incarnations (the appealing Gregg Edelman and Mark Jacoby), are blessedly lower key, though we don’t see much of them in the first half. (Their one big number, “Don’t Count Us Out,” is the penultimate song in the show.) The result is a musical that sells itself at top volume from beginning to end, undeniably entertaining but not endearing. The fact that the 5th Avenue’s amplification system borders on grating doesn’t help matters much.
That said, credit must be given to composers Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner (Broadway’s “First Date”), director Scott Schwartz and choreographer Joshua Bergasse (“Smash”) for some top-shelf production numbers. Act one’s “Sand,” a lyrical gem, packs in a dizzying number of clever rhymes per measure. Act two’s “Alive or Dead,” chronicling the sultan’s round-the-world search for the young uncles and Samira, unfolds like a cartoon newsreel; ingenious projections by Jeff Sugg add to the sense of wonder, as live actors appear to morph into animated characters in front of the audience’s eyes. Scenic designer Eugene Lee and costume designer Ann Hould-Ward add fabulous color and whimsical detail throughout, as the action ranges from Texas to the Middle East to Russia and beyond.
The sweet, brotherly love song “Don’t Count Us Out” feels like a fitting end to the show, after Walter and his uncles find their happy-ever-after — but then another scene follows to ponderously wrap up loose ends. A stronger denouement, and some dynamic modulation throughout, might improve the chances for “Secondhand Lions” to roar into the future.
One note: Speaking of lions, there isn’t one in the stage version of this story, which means the show’s creators have to go to some awkward lengths to make sense of the title. It’s doubtful this is a fatal flaw, but one that might confuse audiences with no prior exposure to the source material.