The Musical

Music by Frederick Freyer
Book and Lyrics by Patrick Cook
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Starring Treat Williams
Manhattan Theatre Club / 131 West 55th Street / (212) 581-1212

Reviewed by David Spencer

As a general rule, and with the rarest imaginable exceptions, theatre critics who are not also theatre professionals are somewhat disadvantaged. To be certain, some are perceptive, some are brilliant writers, some are terrific historians, some are impressively reliable. some are unimpressively reliable, some are responsible and some sincerely try to learn what they can–just as there are those who flat-out stink–but in the crunch, as a playwright-critic friend of mine recently pointed out, they all suffer from the same handicap: They’ve never gone through the process in any meaningful way, and subsequently don’t really understand how theatrical productions are built.

Here’s an analogy: as those who read the teeny print of this ’zine’s home page may be aware, I was recently the defendant in a trademark infringement case, fighting for the right to keep using the Aisle Say moniker, which another critic had mistakenly, but determinedly convinced herself I had stolen from her. Happily, I won the case, and learned a whole helluva lot about trademark law in the process…but I wasn’t remotely prepared for the courtroom intricacies I didn’t know about: the protocols, the limitations–as importantly, the clues upon which a litigator bases a gut instinct, analyzes the odds, constructs a strategy. Both I and the plaintiff had gone to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and both our lawyers were young men who were barely more than kids. Yet the 25 year old fellow who worked for me had the quick perception of a jungle cat. At one point, he impulsively decided against questioning a witness based on the witness’s attitude while approaching the stand, essentially torpedoing any opportunity for testimony beyond the already-filed affidavit; and as we learned subsequently, the guy had a hidden agenda. My lawyer also predicted, weeks before the trial, that the judge would not make a ruling on the spot, but, rather, would ask the lawyers to submit briefs. Right again. At every turn, I was amazed at this young counselor’s understanding of subtleties that would have passed me by, no matter how smartly I observed the process. But then, I was merely a brief visitor to his universe…while he was the man who lived inside…

The same is true of most critics. The least common, but most insidious, manifestation of the handicap is their inability to distinguish the qualities of a worthy new play from the qualities of the flawed production that surrounds it. (I won’t discuss revivals here, which opens a whole other complex discussion.) There are times when, though it is maddening, this is to be expected. Indeed, there was a production in my career that was so badly mismanaged that for some viewers, the musical inside it was all but invisible. That we got any moderately good reviews at all–and we did, in a few places where it mattered–was an unexpected miracle. But that production showcased an extreme disparity. The critics who disliked it couldn’t honestly be blamed.

What’s more deeply upsetting is the inability of critics to see a play or musical past its production when the disparity between the two is small. And that brings us, at long last, to "Captains Courageous" at Manhattan Theatre Club, which may well be the single most bum-rapped musical in history. With the exception of the New York Post, the major reviews have been uniformly unkind and bewilderingly oblivious. Because "Captains Courageous" is not just a good show.

It’s a great show, separated from being a classic only by time.

I’ll say that again: a future classic.

Based on the 1937 film scripted by John Lee Mahin, Marc Connelly and Dale Van Every (directed by Victor Fleming and starring Spencer Tracy)–a film which departs significantly from Rudyard Kipling’s original novel, which is the source material–"Captains Courageous" tells the story of a spoiled rich kid, Harvey Ellesworth Cheyne (Brandon Espinoza) who falls off his father’s ocean liner, to be rescued by Manuel (Treat Williams) a Portuguese fisherman in a dory, who crews on a schooner out of Gloucester, Mass., on a three-month fishing expedition. Harvey quickly finds that his wealth, influence and money mean nothing to the captain or crew of the schooner, and he comes close to being branded a Jonah–a portent of bad luck. But Manuel defends him, and gradually tames his spirit–more accurately, releases his spirit, his true spirit–becoming a surrogate father (in a real sense, the emotional father Harvey never had) and teaching him to do something he can be proud of: be a noble fisherman.

That the story is heading in that direction is clear from the start; and where it heads after that may be predictable to some as well. But this is not a plot driven tale, this is one about the characters: the suspense is not in whether or not Harvey and Manuel will bond, nor in whether or not Harvey will eventually prove himself a worthy young man…those are obvious inevitabilities…the tension is in the how of it, the events that mark the rite of passage.

The tenderness of the father-son tale is set against a robustly muscular canvas. "Captains Courageous" is, alongside "1776", the most convincingly testosterone-powered musical in the cannon. As my dear companion at the performance I attended–herself an accomplished opera singer–commented, "It’s such a rush to see a musical about guys who are real guys." There’s no musical theatre soft-pedaling, no compromise. This is a rough and tumble group, and the swell of harmony, and sometimes counterpoint, when the male chorus kicks into full gear comes at you with the same majesty as the hammer of God.

Of course, this wouldn’t be possible if the score itself weren’t of exuberant sweep; but Frederick Freyer is one of the best melodists of the new generation, while the lyrics of Patrick Cook, upon close analysis, are far more intricate than their deceptive surface simplicity: whether in a rousing sea chantey or a gentle lullaby sung to seduce a fish onto a hook, the imagery, diction, locution are always precisely right–precisely right too is the placement of musical numbers, the motivation for song, and how songs are structured to enrich complex characters while moving the story forward. Consummate craftsmanship is putting it mildly.

All right then.

What the hell happened?

How is it possible that "Captains Courageous" can be so badly maligned when it so clearly deserving of a permanent place in the cannon?

Sometimes, in this business, the name of the game is just getting the show on. And for a freelance team, when a company like MTC greenlights, you celebrate, and you dive in.

Even though the venue is not ideal.

And the problem here is, despite the unusually large dimensions of MTC’s mainstage, it is still an off-Broadway space in an off-Broadway house. (It has a happy midtown location, which doesn’t hurt "Captains"’ mainstream profile, but that’s strictly a matter of PR.) And the fact is, "Captains Courageous" is, at the core, a big, boldly envisioned Broadway show.

True, its central story is an intimate one, but the sweep of the score, the hugeness of the emotions, the sound and the look of it all require space. (It was considered an off-Broadway coup when orchestrator Jonathan Tunick persuaded MTC to engage twelve musicians rather than the originally-planned ten. And even so, the score needs twice that to do it full justice. Its scope is that wide.) MTC’s mainstage just barely contains the show, which is straining, and quietly screaming, to be in a Broadway house. There has been some critical damning of Derek McLane’s turntable set as being monotonous–but there too, it’s a question of misperception. That same design, on a space that could let it breathe, against a cyc that could truly imply the breadth and depth of life on the open seas, would seem eloquent in its simplicity. (Of course, it was the aspiration of the production to achieve an eventual Broadway transfer–no one could have second-guessed that this dichotomy would do any harm.)

As for the direction of MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow: "Captains" is her first book musical, and she has done a surprisingly credible job with it. The interplay between the men is authentic and nicely nuanced, as is the theatrical seamanship, and when a scene blossoms into Jerry Mitchell’s tasty and economical musical staging, it is generally seamless and organic. But because it is her first musical, Ms. Meadow is still on the learning curve: here and there, a neater punctuation of a dramatic point is missing–an early group tableau that might strengthen our visual confidence in the proceedings hasn’t been realized properly, etc. There is no single huge miscalculation: the big picture is absolutely in focus. But there is a list of small, less successful beats along the way. And they add up.

Then there are the lead players. Brandon Espinoza is a fine Harvey, but he has been directed to perform in a style of child-acting that is at least a generation out of date. It’s a performance that needs to be shaded with more, and subtler nuances of real behavior, so we’re less aware of the musical theatre artifice. And he’s clearly capable. It’s a question of fine-tuning.

And you keep wishing that Treat Williams could sing his role as well as he acts it–which is brilliantly. In fact, Manuel may be the single best portrait of his career. But Manuel is written for a bass-baritone; while Mr. Williams is a baritone tenor, and at that, one with a reedy timbre and a limited technique. He has that high male quality that vocalists call "ping," where what’s required to really sell the songs is a lower, liquid resonance.

In short, "Captains Courageous" is an A-plus musical slightly camouflaged by a B-plus production.

But only slightly.

It shouldn’t take much work, or charity, or generosity of spirit, or plain simple common sense, to see the virtues that aren’t quite exploited to optimum potential–nor to credit the production for how much it has done right, which is a significant amount. Yet that’s precisely what has happened. The critics have been unable, or unwilling, to separate the packaging from the contents. (Curiously, the audience seems to make this leap and "get it" with no trouble at all.)

A number of years ago, I heard Maury Yeston utter one of the most chilling theatrical truisms I’ve ever heard. "If you aspire to do nothing but entertain," he said, referring to shows like "Nunsense" and "Forever Plaid", "you can get away with seventy percent, and they’ll still love you. But if you aspire to serious art, and you’re not up to at least ninety percent, they’ll cut you off at the knees."

Which seems to have happened here. So it may be a while before "Captains Courageous" resurfaces and gets its proper due.

But that shouldn’t constrain any of you who are geographically convenient from flocking to MTC while you can (it plays through the beginning of April) and seeing for yourselves how heartbreaking a near-miss can be in this business. Not just for the creators. But for all of us.

There is grandeur in this material. And you owe yourselves the discovery. And the revelation.

Trust your Uncle David on this; he knows these things.

He’s your man on the inside…

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