Matt Casella conceived the musical version of “Paper Moon” and has staged workshops and a previous full-scale production at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, so it’s astonishing how rudimentary and embryonic it appears to be in its latest incarnation, a Goodspeed Opera House/Walnut Street Theater production. Paper-thin at best, it plays rather like an impoverished “Annie,” a 20th-anniversary revival of which will follow it into the Goodspeed (somewhat repetitive programming, since both “Paper Moon” and “Annie” have bald men and small, orphaned moppets as their central characters). Even the physical production itself looks penny-pinched.
The musical is based on Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 movie and the Joe David Brown novel from which it was taken. It echoes the film without successfully evoking its 1930s Depressionaura or its haunting black-and-white photography of the Bible Belt South. The show also has difficulty in coping with the fact that the film was basically a road movie, a mood-and-personality piece that owed a tremendous amount to Bogdanovich’s vision and to the chemistry of its stars, Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum. Casella and his creative team lack a comparable vision for the musical, and the cast is efficient at best. This “Paper Moon,” replete with Larry Grossman’s pastiche score, seems more like a dated revival than a new musical.
Mark Zimmerman plays Moses Pray, a con man who preys on emotionally vulnerable widows as he peddles personalized Bibles. His 9-year-old charge, Addie (played by 11-year-old Lindsay Cummings at the press opening), quickly reveals herself to be an even more efficient con merchant than he, as well as a first-rate blackmailer. The basic immorality of the pair is a difficulty handled much more skillfully by Bogdanovich and the O’Neals than by Casella, his creative team and cast.
Hootchy-kootchy dancer-singer Trixie Delight (Julie Johnson) is also a problem for the musical. Her opening number is a deliberately tacky one for her and her three hopeless backup girls. But it is just that, rather than a witty or sly comment on such numbers, leaving big-bosomed Trixie and her girls floundering in the spotlight. Johnson ultimately wins over the audience with her final, sentimental “Girls Like Us” as she convinces Moses to reunite with Addie.
As Moses, Zimmerman is sturdy but scarcely charismatic enough. As young Addie , Cummings works hard and sings loudly, if none too musically, sometimes swallowing the lyrics and, finally, sinking under the weight of her role. The most vivid performance is given by Blair Ross as Addie’s severely religious aunt in the musical’s short, underdeveloped second act.
Because the press opening did not follow the format of the printed program’s musical numbers, some of which seemed to have been moved from the second act to the first, it appears that work is still being done on “Paper Moon.” But a major reconception would seem to be called for if it is to have any staying power. The production plays at the Goodspeed through Sept. 13 and then at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater Sept. 21 to Nov. 3.