Seemingly seduced by both the title and the attached Broadway names, the Cleveland Playhouse has stuck its institutional neck out on “Eliot Ness in Cleveland,” a portentous new gangster-era musical penned by Peter Ulain and Robert Lindsay Nassif that was developed at the Denver Center. The ill-conceived project is likely to be riddled with critical bullets wherever it dares to surface.
In its current disastrous form, this lame-brained and staggeringly thin tuner is a dismal populist pastiche unable to decide between parody and seriousness, and settling for a stylistic and tasteless mess. David Esbjorn-son’s uncomfortable Cleveland production is far below the usual quality of a prestigious helmer who ran Gotham’s Classic Stage Co. for seven years and directed the world premiere of “Angels in America.”
Judging by the changes inserted into the program (12 second-act numbers were cut to eight) and the running time of barely two hours, major cuts were made far too late in the game. That may explain why Jay Stuart, a principal player, was not yet entirely familiar with his lines. But it certainly leaves one wondering how the likes of Burke Moses and Alison Fraser got themselves hooked up with this drop-dead dumb affair.
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On opening weekend, the square-jawed Moses was plugging manfully along in the lead role of Ness, who really did go to Ohio after taking a bite out of Windy City crime. Fraser, though, seemed curiously removed from her part as a Cleveland hack who hopes, in vain, to bed Mr. Clean before the final curtain (“Do you always have to be the untouchable, Eliot Ness?,” she must wail). Perhaps Fraser is exercising some understand-able self-defense.
Among other delights, Cleveland auds can hear Ness sing about empty-ing his bowels, listen to a digression on the sexual desirability of chickens, watch a person fall off a building and sing a number called “There’s Always Tomorrow” in mid-air, and see police brutality played for laughs. Memo to the creative team: Abusive cops are not funny.
Any show where the best moments of the night are the frequent visita-tions from the ghost of Al Capone (who warbles the nostalgic ditty “Whatever Happened to Organized Crime?”) has problems indeed. Joyously chewing the scenery as little Al, the splendid Ray Demattis at least seems to have figured out that he may as well enjoy himself for the next few weeks in Cleveland.
The horrors here begin with the arrival of Ness in Cleveland at the behest of a mayor looking for public-ity and civic image. Ness quickly secures the services of the aforemen-tioned hack (who get scoops in return for doing as she’s told) and a couple of flat-footed cops, who fight crime and dispense vaudeville gags in the process. Sadly for Mr. Untouchable, his image gets soiled by the career of a local murderer with a habit of dismembering the bodies of local bums. As one can quickly predict, the killer is an upper-class someone whom Ness has already met.
Aside from a score that migrates from flapper-like swing to contempo-rary Broadway stylings without rhyme or reason, the book (based on Ulian’s non-musical play) here relies on such whacked-out devices as paper boys delivering exposition, a singing trio offering narration, and assorted all-knowing homeless people.
There’s no clear sense of whether the show is shooting for Frank Wild-horn-style populism or serious social commentary and thus it misses both marks. Given his uneasy sense of moral absolutism, Ness is a reason-able topic for a musical (you can even see, at a stretch, why Moses was attracted to the role), but even the great untouchable cannot survive this assault.