Having previously inducted the Kinks’ Ray Davies and the Who’s Pete Townshend into the cult of the musical theater, the La Jolla Playhouse has now turned to Randy Newman, one of American pop music’s best — and most reliably contrarian — storytellers. The result is Newman’s scabrous updating of “Faust,” and it’s one of the freshest winds to blow the theater’s way in some time. “Faust” also is something of a mess, and one can only, well, pray that Warner Bros. Records and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels will have the patience to address the show’s problems before bringing it back to New York.
In Newman’s “Faust,” the Lord (Ken Page, who also was God in “Cats” and pretty much reprises the role here) is a slightly smug, somewhat bored, golf-playing Big Daddy; the Devil (David Garrison) is an equally bored bureaucrat desperate to regain his place at God’s side. Henry Faust (Kurt Deutsch) is a skanky slacker in his third freshman year at Notre Dame, whom neither of them can stand and whose greatest aspiration is to create a computer game franchise bigger than Nintendo.
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It’s all a perfect setup for a writer with Newman’s essentially black sensibility. In one of his earliest songs, “God’s Song,” Newman’s Lord “recoils in horror” at the mess man has made of things, but he’s basically unwilling to get involved in rectifying the situation. Here, Newman expands on that theme: Lucifer gleefully shocks the Heavenly host with lurid tales, while God checks out the situation Down Here on a gold laptop. They make their bet — can Lucifer really corrupt man’s essential goodness? — and their mark is Henry, who will not go willingly into that good light.
It’s also a story in which Lucifer gets his comeuppance from a double-breasted gold digger (Sherie Rene Scott), and God admits that “my ways are mysterious — sometimes even to myself.”
The show opens with a big gospel-infused number, and like Newman’s best work, the songs segue effortlessly from blasting rockers to sentimental ballads, hard blues and even “Lovetime,” a tap number for chorus girls in underwear that prompts Henry to mutter, “I hate that oldtime shit.” (Most of the songs can be heard on an all-star album released by Reprise to coincide with the production, though some numbers already have been replaced by others, not always for the better.)
On the downside, Newman — who wrote the book as well as the score — doesn’t really have a clue about writing a musical (and thank goodness that hasn’t stopped him). There is a terrific show inside “Faust” that needs time and the laying on of more experienced hands to advance it. Now the songs, wonderful as they are, tend to come out of nowhere, and in several cases just stop the show dead in its tracks. And as the clock works its way toward 11 o’clock, you find yourself wondering how so many loose ends will be tied up before midnight; and they are, but only in a rush that suggests Newman just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
Though Newman is an admitted devotee of Stephen Sondheim, “Faust” owes much more to the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill collaborations “Threepenny Opera” and “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny” than say, “Sweeney Todd.” Like Brecht, Newman has a ferocious, uncompromising sense of irony that gives his work an existential chill and tremendous energy at the same time. Yet that irony is exactly what this production most seriously lacks.
The cast, including Bellamy Young as Henry’s abused love interest Margaret, is uniformly charming — and uniformly bland. Newman has turned to a relatively inexperienced team to put the production across. Michael Greif’s staging and Lynn Taylor-Corbett’s dances are equally uninspired and lacking in fresh ideas. At least the design team solved the problem of multiple, global and extra-global locations with great humor; kudos to James Youmans (sets), Alex Papalexis (projections) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting).
Oddly, “Faust” also made me think of “Carousel.” They share a God who cannot bear to see even a grunge-bucket like Henry Faust — or Billy Bigelow — left to the eternal flames. Both shows end with a cop-out; in its last moments, “Faust” has all too much in common with that most recent Faust revival on Broadway, “Damn Yankees.” But give Newman time. “Faust” could emerge as the most exciting new musical in years.