Frank Loesser’s “Greenwillow” lasted only two months on Broadway in 1960, but this short-lived musical about love and redemption has been redeemed with a new book that makes it an appealingly old-fashioned show.
Fans of the original cast album and of musical theater in general may well rejoice over the job that Douglas Holmes and Walter Willison have done in taking Loesser’s beautifully varied score and fitting it into a magical story that is both touching and funny. Working closely with Loesser’s widow, Jo Sullivan Loesser, Holmes and Willison have fashioned a story that more closely follows the novel by B.J. Chute than did the original musical’s libretto by Loesser and Lesser Samuels. They have added new characters, more fully developed others and given the story a heartwarming tone reminiscent of the Golden Age of musicals; the result stands out amid contemporary fare that often leaves the viewer unmoved.
Willison, Holmes and Jo Loesser have hopes of taking the show to Broadway, and it may well deserve a place in New York after some trimming of repetitious elements and fine-tuning of a few spots that drag. They have included all songs from the original show, added a couple of melodies that were dropped from the first production, and another, “House and Garden,” which was written for Jo Sullivan but then cut from “The Most Happy Fella.” It’s a pretty song, but doesn’t really fit this show, which defies time and place.
The story is set in the 1930s, and residents of the backwoods town of Greenwillow are generally happy, except when the dour Rev. Lapp reminds them they should be as depressed as the rest of the country. He’s a hellfire-and-damnation preacher who threatens to turn “A Day Borrowed From Heaven” into one of dark clouds and misery.
But things change when the genial Rev. Birdsong arrives like Mary Poppins. His positive impact will be most profoundly felt by the Briggs family, whose men have been cursed with the call to wander the world, leaving loved ones beyond. Young Gideon Briggs, who watches his traveling father leave one more time, determines to break the curse by fighting his love for Dorrie and vowing, “Never Will I Marry.”
There’s a charmingly hokey quality to the story, but as directed by Willison (who also makes an impressive performance as Amos Briggs, singing a powerful “Summertime Love”), it’s warm and friendly, like a visit to an American Brigadoon.
Andrew Driscoll is a strong discovery as Gideon (originally played by Anthony Perkins), bringing an earthy charm and easy singing style to the role. His “Never Will I Marry” is powerfully delivered, yet he also captures the awkward shyness of a young man in love.
Maxine Wood is attractive as Dorrie, who can’t quite bring herself to admit her love (at least out loud) for Gideon. As Martha Briggs, Marianne Carson Rhodes, though looking too contemporary, contributes a sweet-voiced “Walkin’ Away Whistlin’.”
Jeffrey Atherton is ominous as the Rev. Lapp, who sees only the devil around him, which makes his eventual transformation all the more moving. Holmes is fun to watch, perched in a tree as the narrator, Little Fox Jones, who introduces the audience to the village.
Though the show has its serious moments, it is regularly brightened by the sassy performance of Helon Blount as Granny Briggs, who teams with a friendly Sam Reni, as Birdsong, to sing the comical “What a Blessing.” She’s also a delight to watch as she playfully reminisces with James Pritchett’s ornery Thomas Clegg during “Could’ve Been a Ring!”
Musical director Michael Sebastian elicits a strong sound from the cast on Loesser’s often difficult harmonies, making them both joyous and moving.
While it can’t be easy to cut any music by Loesser, the ballet to “Micah Hunts the Devil” slows the story just as it’s picking up steam, though Beth Duda’s giant puppets add to the haunting mood. The long intro to “What a Blessing” also could be lost without detriment.
This show is blessed with spirit. Loesser and Samuels may have missed 37 years ago, but with Holmes and Willison’s framework, Loesser’s songs have new life, and “Greenwillow” seems ready to blossom.