Producer Jane Bergere has been nurturing James Racheff and William Scott Duffield’s “Houdini” for four years, but as of this work-in-progress premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House the musical remains an honorable attempt, too generic to conjure the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini.
A musical about Houdini is a viable proposition (the magician is a secondary character in both the Broadway-bound “Ragtime” and the new film “Fairy Tale”), but director Gabriel Barre and actor Timothy Gulan here fall short of what must have been remarkable charisma. Houdini’s jealous younger brother, Theo, vibrantly played by Lewis Cleale, comes across much more vividly.
Gulan works valiantly, actually performing some of Houdini’s magic and escape acts, but his Houdini makes surprisingly little impact: The musical never convinces that this man could have captured the world’s imagination.
“Houdini” begins and ends with a seance on the stage of New York’s Palace Theater in 1936, 10 years after Houdini’s death, but his spirit is brought forth neither by the seance nor the musical: The many disjointed scenes have no cumulative force. The score has its attractive aspects, composer-lyricist Duffield taking loving note of the popular music of the period, but the attractiveness isn’t sufficiently theatrical.
Growing up in an impoverished home held together by their beloved mother (Barbara Andres), the man who became Houdini and his brother had a professional rivalry matched by a love for the same woman (Barbara Walsh). Even with the inherent family drama, the musical spends too much time on Houdini before he became a success.
As Houdini’s wife, Walsh has a heartfelt singing voice and presence but seems too matronly against Gulan’s boyishness. Most of the rest of the cast plays a multitude of historical characters (Ziegfeld, Buffalo Bill, Barnum, etc.). The pit orchestra under Michael O’Flaherty is a plus, but Loren Sherman’s stylized sliding-panel scenery is too Spartan for the period and places.
But the main problem for the artistic team of “Houdini” is getting the central character to materialize.