When an off-off Broadway company called Unsung Musicals revives and revises a Broadway flop, you can’t fairly apply standards of Broadway finesse, and you have to bring a forgiving nature to boot. Production values will be economical and the casting pool will be limited not necessarily to the best, but the best available at the time and for whatever fee or recompense may be offered. But The Fig Leaves are Falling, depending upon your sensibility, can make that forbearance something of a challenge.
And I don’t think there’s a villain either. This late 60s flop, about a conventional businessman husband who leaves his conventional suburban wife to have an affair with a younger, swingin’ girl, is one of those once-contemporary musicals that suffers not only from its authors lacking historical perspective through which to view their own era, but themselves being middle aged fuddy-duddies trying to make a salient comment about the sexual/social freedom of a younger generation they didn’t remotely understand. A friend of reminded me that the 60s flummoxed conventional perspectives, because it was the first time that the functions of id and superego became confused. The id, of course, being the psychological force that urges you to lose your inhibition and give in to impulse, in this case sexual impulse; while the superego is the editor that says, by Gadfrey, don’t do that, consider the consequences to your stable existence! But in the convention-bending 60s, frequently, the superego was “retrained” to create guilt if you didn’t follow your impulses; i.e. by Gadfrey, if you don’t try, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting and not knowing, stability be damned! And the husband-hero of TFLAF is a guy in the middle of that conundrum. More unbalancing still, the show’s librettist-lyricist, Allan Sherman (best known for his bestselling recordings of parody lyrics to famous melodies, such as “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”) had been that guy, and, fresh off a divorce, was using the show to try and explore the condition.
I don’t know the original show, but having done some online research that took me to some quite revelatory photos of the Broadway production, current reviser-director Ben West has obviously done some very serious streamlining, compacting and refocusing.
I can’t comment on how wisely he’s done it, but the show hasn’t remotely been rescued from a stark but unwitting misogyny, nor in its new, 90 minute, intermissionless form does it seem an affectionate throwback (though that’s exactly what it’s meant to be).
In part this is due to the show itself, which is too unyielding at the core to elicit forgiveness.
But in part this is also due to a number of casting choices that violate verisimilitude. Ironically, the least of them and the easiest to overlook, in a theatrical culture that increasingly (if selectively) seeks to be color-blind, is the casting of an African American woman (Natalie Venetia Bacon) as the traditional suburban wife in this mix. Because at least Ms. Bacon brings a genuine sense of homey stability to the party. No, it’s in the casting of Jonathan Rayson as the businessman; he’s not really uptight and middle aged, he’s a young man’s (and a young director’s) comment on uptight and middle-aged. Which makes him seem to belong less with the wife than the hip young secretary…who, in the person of Morgan Weed, is imbued with enough maturity and directed sexuality to seem a more logical alternative than a daring or inappropriate one. (In the original cast you had Barry Nelson and a barely-20 Jenny O’Hara. If those names are too past-generation for you, let me put it this way: remember the satirical movie Aiplane!? One of its most distinguishing and nervy features is that the directors didn’t cast actors to imitate the action movie archetypes they were lampooning; they cast the actual actors who were known for playing those roles; people like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and especially Leslie Nielsen, for whom it initiated a second career as a comedic lead. Well, Barry Nelson was that kind of actor: crinkly-eyed, craggy and an old soul when he was young; in the right context he was the very soul of the establishment man. Picture a guy like that, a guy from Mad Men, with a free-spirited flower child. That’s your verisimilitude.)
But here’s the contradiction, and it goes hand in hand with the confusion of id and superego…to cast the show that authentically only amplifies what’s wrong to begin with, which is the essential inauthenticity of the material, which lacks verisimilitude at the core. The only thing you might hope to do accurately is replicate the misrepresentation. Hmmmm.
The only thing one can say for sure about this small production at the Connelly (downtown on East 4th Street between Avenues A and B) is that it’s not dull, it’s performed with as much heart and enthusiasm as can be mustered, and that, for all the show’s unconquerable paradoxes, the score is worth listening to. Albert Hague wrote some very catchy tunes; and it’s sadly clear that if Allan Sherman had lived long enough to keep pursuing the muse, and cared to (he died in ’73 at the age of 48), he would have been a first-class theatre lyricist. His style was his own, his wordplay tireless and easy, his craftsmanship damn near impeccable and his wit genuine. There was far more to him than parody lyrics. Biggest irony: in this show about following your id and breaking out of the box, the songs are as squarely traditional as can be; though in terms of being worthwhile, there’s nothing square about them.
can’t say if you’ll enjoy yourself. I was impatient through most of it; my
companion, a notable playwright and theatre historian, was never convinced but
always amused; and the audience seemed to be going with the flow. I can only
tell you it’s an intriguing curiosity.
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