Snazzy vintage cars, fun ’60s fashion and cool mid-century designs make for some neat eye candy in Hartford Stage’s world premiere of the musical “The Flamingo Kid.” But nostalgia can only take you so far in a show that’s thin on character, thick with clichés, and full of — to borrow one of the script’s plentiful Yiddish words — schmaltz.
Though the musical — based on the 1984 coming-of-age film set during the summer of ’63 — has some playful music and dances, an often buoyant spirit and a colorful pastel palette, the overall effect is as predictable as a beach read. Its story, characters and conflicts are, at least at this stage of the show’s development, all too familiar.
In a coming-of-age narrative that echoes the father-son-mentor triangle in “A Bronx Tale,” this outer-borough story centers on Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), an 18-year-old Brooklyn teen who gets a summer job first as a parking lot attendant, then later as a cabana boy, at El Flamingo, a posh private Long Island resort catering to upwardly mobile Jews.
Soon he is drifting away from his working class parents as he becomes beguiled by gin-rummy-playing card sharp Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch), who takes the kid under his wing and introduces him to a life of fast cars, swank living and easy money. A special nod here should go to the quartet of car chassis built by BB Props/Emiliano Peres. Indeed, the show’s design elements, especially Alexander Dodge’s aquamarine-wave sets and Linda Cho’s witty nouveau-riche costumes, are retro delights.
Jeffrey’s parents Arthur and Rose (Liz Larsen and Adam Heller, solid and authentic) are, of course, concerned about their son’s changing attitude and values. That’s especially true of his father, who becomes outraged when Jeffrey decides to nix college to work for Phil as a salesman at his high-end car dealership. But after money is gambled and lost, hearts are hurt and promises broken, Jeffrey, in the end, learns the difference between what is taken and what is earned.
The score by composer Scott Frankel (“Grey Gardens,” “War Paint”) and lyricist Robert L. Freedman (“A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder”) encompasses several pleasant pastiche songs and some clever rhymes (“menopausal/schlemazel”), but lacks the kind of memorable numbers that make a show soar. Denis Jones’ choreography, meanwhile, provides some casual summer fun with an amusing cabana sequence, plus one for the resort’s rhumba competition.
But when the show tries to get serious, it feels awkward, strained or (like many of the song titles) just too on-the-nose, whether it’s Jeffrey’s father singing “This Is My House” or “My Son, The Big Shot” or the male Winnicks singing the treacly closing number “Fathers and Sons.”
Freedman’s script flirts with issues of class, culture and consumerism, but Philip Roth it ain’t, and “The Flamingo Kid” doesn’t go much beyond sentimentality, caricature or reductivism. An attempt to suddenly become sociologically profound at show’s end, with television news clips noting America’s post-assassination “loss of innocence,” is cringe-worthy.
Outgoing artistic director Darko Tresnjak, who deftly staged “Gentleman’s Guide” and “Anastasia,” hasn’t yet found the right balance for this show as it careens from broad comedy to angst-filled kitchen-sink drama to musical corn. What it lacks now is any kind of edge or nuance to distinguish itself.
As Jeffrey, newbie Brewer — he graduated from Carnegie Mellon last year — is likable and sings okay, and he nicely reflects Jeffrey’s combination of intelligence, gawkiness and eagerness to please. He doesn’t balk at showing the boy’s selfish side, too.
Also standing out is Lesli Margherita as Phyllis, Phil’s long-suffering snob of a wife, who gets every laugh effortlessly with her deadpan delivery. She also nails her second act number, a good song with a terrible title using period slang that was tired even then (“That’s the Way The Cookie Crumbles”). As Phil, meanwhile, Kudisch’s usually fine comic touch is exchanged here for the broad and boisterous, which undercuts Jeffrey’s attraction to Phil’s B.S.
As for Jeffrey’s friends and Phil’s gin-rummy mates, there’s little in terms of character for most of these actors to play. But it needn’t be that way. Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple” showed that card players don’t always have to be anonymous, that wing men can indeed stand out and that, in the end, the delights are in the details.