Authors beware. Start your “musical fantasy” with a 50-year-old actor hopping around in a raven suit spouting one-liners — simultaneously delivering “bagels with a schmear” in takeout bags from H&H — and your often-impressive work will face an uphill battle. Erik Haagensen and Richard Isen’s long-in-gestation musical “A Fine & Private Place” manages to surmount the bird, mostly, although the raven (and the cheap jokes that occasionally pep up the script) continually bring the fantasy down to earth.
Jonathan Rebeck (Joseph Kolinski) is a Judd Hirsch-like curmudgeon living in Yorkchester (read Woodlawn) Cemetery. He talks to the ghosts, and the bird, and daren’t wander outside the gates. Seems like he’s hiding from life, no? Rebeck meets up with troubled young writer-corpse Michael (Glenn Seven Allen), who isn’t yet ready to set off for the land beyond. (“Hell or purgatory?” he asks. “The Bronx!” Rebeck retorts.)
There’s soon a companion for each of them: delicate Laura (Christiane Noll), a ghost who’s never tasted life but sings like a dream, and 60-year-old Jewish widow Gertrude Klapper (Evalyn Baron), a non-ghost in the Molly Picon mold. Boy and man spar with girl and lady, with the usual results — which in this decidedly unconventional musical includes midnight disinterment.
The property’s convoluted back story might be more fascinating than the musical itself. Peter S. Beagle’s novel caused something of a stir when it was published in 1960, when the author was only 19. Twenty-five years later, New York U. MFA candidates Haagensen and Isen started work. After staged readings at the Eugene O’Neill Center in 1986 and ’87, “A Fine & Private Place” was mounted in full by Goodspeed in 1988. The road to glory dead-ended in Jersey, after an unsuccessful stint at the American Stage Festival.
Composer Isen gave it all up, moving to San Francisco to work in the IT biz. That’s probably all for the best, as the music is perfectly functional but little more until late in the second act, when Noll meets a good song (“Close Your Eyes”) and delivers.
Lyricist-librettist Haagensen has gone on to develop several projects for the York, including the well-regarded John Latouche revue “Taking a Chance on Love.” Hence, “A Fine & Private Place” reaches town 20 years after it started in Washington Square.
The time lag is apparent, with some unfortunate results. Action is firmly placed in the present, with cell phones and dot-com-emblazoned T-shirts prominently in view. But Gertrude sprinkles her language with jokes about tsimmis and Neville Chamberlain. This character lives in the Bronx of 2006 but seems to have grown up in the Bronx of “Awake and Sing!” Memo to librettists: You are welcome to lift dialogue from your source material, but contemporary references written 45 years ago for 60-year-old characters can leave us wondering what century we’re in.
The four leads do reasonably well with material that wavers between “Brigadoon” and “I’m Not Rappaport,” with fleeting memories of “In My Life.” Credit goes to director Gabriel Barre; but where did he find that raven, flapping around in a black costume with wings, dropping McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts bags from his beak and sporting some especially unattractive claws? The birdsuit is inhabited by Barre himself, who created the role at the O’Neill and Goodspeed. A sixth character, a drunken groundskeeper played by Larri Rebega, makes a few second-act appearances when the raven is in the wings.
All told, York subscribers should be mostly pleased. “A Fine & Private Place” gets points for being an unconventional musical displaying originality and heart, not to mention attractive performances from Noll and — in his first major New York role — Allen. Regionals looking for an earnest and economical musical should give this tombstone tuner an afterlife.
But oh! that bird. “Where’s the vice president when you need him?” jokes the dead writer, eying the bird and miming a rifle. Or maybe it isn’t a joke.