Melding the bio-drama of Academy Award-winning lyricist Al Dubin (1892-1945) with a pseudo-concert rendering of his songs is a daunting task, and this ambitious, energetic production doesn’t succeed on either level. Despite an ingratiating portrayal of Dubin by Nathan Holland, it is awkward to segue from the unfolding history of an alcoholic lech (who gambled away his earnings, neglected his daughter and openly cheated on his wife) to Jamie Anderson’s (as Dick Powell) tender rendering of “I Only Have Eyes for You” and Heather Lee’s (as his wife, Helen) forlorn “I’ll String Along With You.” Though every number in the production is staged with imaginative aplomb by director David Galligan and choreographer Kay Cole, the intensity of the storyline actually impedes the audience’s ability to react to the musical offerings.
It is impossible to truly enjoy the songs and the performances on their own merits because the setup of every song in the show is built on the hypocrisy of the man’s tragically corrupt history. Director Galligan mistakenly unfolds Dubin’s dubious story then displays Dubin’s music as if one does not adversely affect the other. And though playwright Kimmel is very astute at displaying the weaknesses of Dubin’s character, there is no attention given to explaining the soul of a man who possessed almost no moral fiber yet could turn out the emotionally insightful “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” sung with heart-rending intensity by Mary Jo Mecca.
As stated in the production, Dubin has been called “the forgotten man of Broadway,” partially because pure lyricists like him never get the billing and the credit bestowed on such melody-makers as Dubin collaborators Harry Warren and Jimmy McHugh. And as chronicled in Joel Kimmel’s angst-riddled book, Dubin’s alienating lifestyle and work habits did not make for fond remembrances from peers or entertainment industry historians.
“Lullaby of Broadway” follows our anti-hero from his Tin Pan Alley days following the Great War, to his self-destructive years in Hollywood, turning out such gems as “About a Quarter to Nine,” “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” “For You,” the Oscar-winning “Lullaby of Broadway,” “We’re in the Money,” “September in the Rain,” “Indian Summer,” “42nd Street” and many, many more.
While adequately displaying the drive and charisma of the man, there is never a satisfactory explanation given to why such a gifted artist would be so disrespectful of his own talent and the support of those who truly loved him.
For the most part, cast is excellent. Complementing Holland’s Dubin are Kirby Tepper as the supremely easygoing composer Harry Warren, Mary Codorette, doing duty as the tough hoofer Ruby Keeler and Dubin’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter, Patricia, James Matthew Campbell as the no-nonsense movie choreographer Busby Berkeley and Mary Jo Mecca as Dubin’s adoring but low-class mistress Edwina.
Also, a true standout of the production is Tami Tappan, who is a comedic delight with the novelty tune “Frankfurter Sandwiches,” then just soars through the emotion-charged “Painting the Clouds With Sunshine.” One extremely low point in the production, however, is Perry C. Moore’s undernourished and out-of-tune portrayal of legendary band leader Cab Calloway performing “Lulu’s Back in Town.”
Providing ample support to the onstage doings are Robert L. Smith’s imaginative black-and-white art deco set, the lighting of Michael Gilliam, Thomas G. Marquez’s dead-on period costuming and the duo-piano accompaniment of musical director James Vukovidch and Andy Chuckerman.