Words by Tom Jones
Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by John Schak
The 28th Street Theatre /120 West 28th Street / (914) 337-5095

Reviewed by David Spencer

[Note: a version of the "background" portions of this review appeared, though given a somewhat different context, in the previous Aisle Say rumination about the 1998 Jones-Schmidt revue, "The Song Goes On".]


The theatre was located at 341 West 47th Street, a church that had been reconverted into an off-off Broadway workshop space. The logo on the marquee read:


—in an emblematic style that was familiar to anyone who knew that composer Harvey Schmidt had been a graphics designer before becoming a full-time composer for the musical theatre. It was a name both he and his collaborator, lyricist-librettist Tom Jones liked for their studio, as it honored both the graphic and theatrical disciplines, and suggested something modest yet versatile. (In a college paper interview I did with the Texas-born team—in what was perhaps the last year of Portfolio’s existence, 1975—Jones also confessed liking the sign because if you scanned it top to bottom, rather than left to right, you also got "Pittle Offee Roo" which appealed to his appreciation of the mysterious.) Portfolio Studios was a place that represented something of a dream for the team who had made their name with "The Fantasticks" and followed it with "110 in the Shade" and "I Do! I Do!" It was a workshop, a place to experiment and develop shows on their own time, terms and turf.

The grand experiment culminated in a season of four shows. They each ran a month, from December through February, and played an OOB schedule, Friday through Sunday, 8PM only. The price for the entire subscription—a cool ten bucks.

The first show was a revue from the Jones-Schmidt cannon, works they’d written, works in progress, to sort of introduce the audience to what they were about and, philosophically, where this series of workshop experiments "lived." The other three shows were book musicals. In reverse order:

The last of the series was the weakest, and one they wisely abandoned, an 80 minute riff on male menopause called "The Bone Room".

The middle entry was a revised version of their ritual musical "Celebration", returning to the workshop where it was developed (its previous version had moved to Broadway for a very modest stay)—a problem show that would not be treated kindly by time, it still featured a winning score.

The first was perhaps the best thing they’d ever written, and at the time, Jones would have said as much: "Philemon"—which was probably directed by the wordsmith himself, as no director was listed, though Lester Collins received credit for "staging." Set in ancient Greece, it was about a street clown [Dick Latessa] hired by a Roman commander [Howard Ross] to impersonate an imprisoned religious leader, and betray the secrets of an underground revolution…a clown who discovers a conscience he didn’t know he had, and begins to take the role to heart.

"Philemon"’s unfortunate positioning as the second attraction of the Portfolio series, and the nature of the industry at that time, doomed it to undeserved obscurity. With Portfolio committed to shows #3 and #4, the space was booked for the final two months of the series, and "Philemon", despite opening to rave reviews, couldn’t immediately extend beyond its scheduled nine performances, not without moving to another space and the funding it would require for the move.

By the time "Philemon" finally did re-open—again at the Portfolio space—it was April, end of season, summer fast approaching, the industry iron no longer hot, the newspapers refusing to re-review it, nor even reprint their old notices, and subsequently remind people it was there. The run would be presented as a six-week limited engagement, and would remain so, pending a miracle. Which never materialized. The musical closed. The Original Cast Album was recorded, produced and released after the fact by the writers themselves, on their own Gallery label [the serial number was OC1, the vinyl release now a rare and expensive collectors’ item] and the original production, only slightly restaged and softened for television, with the original cast, was splendidly taped for PBS, under the direction of Norman Lloyd [better known, later, as "St. Elsewhere’"s Dr. Altschuler]—curiously, as an entry in the "Hollywood Television Theatre" series.

In 1990, "Philemon" reappeared as a York Theatre revival, but the direction, credited to Fran Soder, was really just a pallid, unimpressively cast paraphrase of the original, seemingly modeled on the televised documentation, down to the set design, some of which included actual pieces from the Portfolio run. The revival had all of the moves, all of the stuff, but precious little of the humanism key to any Jones-Schmidt enterprise. And as a friend of mine, a prominent musical director who saw the production with me, and dearly loves "Philemon", commented—the tempos were too damn slow. Thus what had the potential to be a thrilling rediscovery was received with mild tolerance, which sent the show, alas, into "hiding" yet again. For good, I thought, so damaging had it been to the transcendent inner life of the material.

But at the 25th anniversary of "Philemon" there comes another chance. Possibly a dim one, as it is woefully underpublicized—the producers of the new company Music in a Box, of which "Philemon" is their inaugural production, may once again inadvertently perpetuate the "tradition" of "Philemon" making only cameo appearances and then vanishing without notice again, due to some ineptitude along the way as regards Getting The Word Out: too many, even in the industry, don’t even know it’s here.

And that would be a shame.

Because this is as worthy a production of a lost masterpiece as one could hope…

* * * * *

The director of the current revival is John Schak, whose association with Jones and Schmidt goes back to Portfolio and the original workshops of "Philemon", and though the material has not changed by so much as a word, his reinvestigation of the material, and his redefinition of its look and physicality, is as thoroughgoing as what Sam Mendes did with "Cabaret", or Nicholas Hytner with "Carousel".

In preparing this review, I took another look at the 1976 PBS original cast broadcast (never commercially released, but copies have made the rounds here and there) to more freshly acquaint myself with the points of departure.

It’s hard to make sweeping philosophical generalizations about either production; the contrasting broad strokes and subtleties exist in equal measure, the playing style equally humanist, though different in the proportions and placement of verité humanism versus musical theatre presentational techniques. But I think three things can mark the productions cleanly apart:

First: even though the opening number, "Within This Empty Space" invites the audience to come along on a journey propelled by the imagination’s ability to take suggestion and fill a spare playing area with the sights, sounds and atmosphere of ancient Greece, the Portfolio staging did, in fact, employ a rudimentary set, with stairways, levels and platforms—not dissimilar to an Old Globe layout in bare wood. The revival, however, is even truer to the philosophy of the song. Other than a few prop pieces that line the walls, director John Schak’s set is literally the prototype empty black box…with only a large circle in white painted on the floor, that circle used at times to define or suggest physical boundaries.

Second: Even though it was done in a minimalist and suggestive way, the Portfolio production literalized the ancient world. The Commander’s patterns, colors and accouterments would not have seemed out of place in a Bible epic; Cockian’s tattered street clothes, though little more that shredded tights and a worn, stretched sleeveless T-shirt, avoided any hint of anachronism. Schack’s production brings on players dressed in openly contemporary garb—as if they were New York City visitors to an archeological dig—said garb transformed as the story requires, less literally than symbolically, e.g.: the feathers on Cockian’s clown chicken suit are yellow Metrocards; the Commander’s uniform is a long, black leather greatcoat: the height of Nazi fashion.

Third: The Portfolio staging was very much an "establishment" production, in the face of the formless upheavals of the 60s and the loose-cannon rock rebellions of the 70s. The sensibility was that of complex middle aged men examining their principles and the state of the world. Dick Latessa’s Cockian was less a clown per se than a washed-up Burlesque comedian, used and cynical after a decades of bad breaks and bad luck, his self-loathing concealed behind a sneering opportunism; Howard Ross’s bearded, infinitely subtle Commander was likewise a man weary of the world, but one whose vision of a world that would not fatigue him with its weakness kept him going—never an out and out villian, never so blinded by The Party Line that he didn’t understand its ironies, just a man with a calm certainty in a misguided passion. Schack’s revival, as indicated by the costumes, favors a broader symbolism. Michael J. Farina’s Cockian truly is a clown, a short, butterball-shaped Weeble, in baggy pants overalls and a striped polo shirt—not a man whose prime has passed, but rather a man who never knew what the prime was. Bryan Johnson’s tall, crewcut, greatcoated Commander is a sly zealot, somewhat more tapped into the Hive Brain mentality of Roman Rule, somewhat less visibly lonely underneath. Likewise are the other players more broadly drawn (not necessarily more broadly played, but more broadly visualized).

If the Schak staging is more obvious as a parable for the present day, it is also more relevant as a manifesto for a younger generation; indeed, it may even have exploited the timely verities of "Philemon" better than a more "traditional" staging might do, as its metaphorical allusions remind us that we still live in a world where "ethnic cleansing" is possible. (In 1975, "Philemon" tended to evoke only the spectre of Nazi Germany, history rather than current event.)

Schack has also boldly experimented with the boundaries of time and space. With the exception of the actor playing Cockian, all the players double as Greek chorus; in the Portfolio staging, there were clearly designated areas in which one assumed Greek chorus activities. Once a chorister stepped out of those areas into the main playing space, it was to portray his or her one specific character. But at Music in a Box, Schak holds to no such protocol; he lets Greek chorus duties make themselves clear by grouping people interestingly, variously letting those groups invade the main playing space. In some ways it’s almost an inversion of the original philosophy.

As important to the look of the show as the sets and costumes (jointly designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case) is the lighting designed by Traci Renée Klainer. It creates pictures as symbolic as the rest of the physical production, albeit somewhat more abstract. One especially striking moment has Cockian, at his most helpless, literally painted into a corner, owing to the absence of light anywhere else.

Though touchingly sensitive, soulful and heartfelt, Schak’s production of "Philemon" can be viewed as lovingly reactionary—a way of dashing the original production’s preconceptions purposefully, toward the goal of rebuilding the show for a new audience…and as with any such reaction, it does have a few flaws, moments in which the reconception doesn’t account for built-in traps the material conceals for any such approach.

Some of these are unavoidable. Perhaps the most notable is the simple fact that, ultimately, "Philemon" is very preachy and terribly Christian in its assertion that love is the ultimate answer, making everything possible. (My companion of the afternoon had never seen the show before, and wondered why it had not been picked up by church groups over the years. I thought it was a damn good question.) In 1975, that "revelation" coming out of the original sensibility, and from actors who seemed older and more worldly, wasn’t quite so blatantly a sermon. In 1999, coming from a younger group surrounded by cultural iconography, the dogma and moralism of "Philemon"’s message cannot help but be exacerbated to the point where you find yourself slightly abstracted from the story, made too aware of the Judeo-Christian propaganda.

Some of the traps were avoidable—and still are. One of the roles in the show is that of Kiki, who street-clowns with Cockian until, after he takes advantage of her once too often, she betrays him. Kiki’s tessitura is in a midrange that most theatre altos or sopranos can negotiate fairly well…but at the end of her solo song ("Don’t Kiki Me") the original score has her blowing off Cockian’s affection with three "goodbye"s, each reaching higher than the last. 1975’s Kiki was blonde, willowy Kathryn King Segal, an unexceptional soprano, but one who had a range that could take her stratospherically high, to hit notes that trumpet players might call screech tones, but to do it quietly. In chorus moments it often provided a riveting effect.

The current Kiki, however, is Megan Morrison, a buxom, brassy redhead—and a belter. There’s no excuse for trying to make her hit those "goodbye" notes, they’re not remotely in her practical range, and when she hits them, the sound is strident and ugly and not at all her fault. Since she performs the rest of her number so engagingly, it should have taken very little thought or effort for the music department—co-music directors Charles Eversole and C. Colby Sachs, who have otherwise done a very creditable job—to contact the composer to either approve, or contribute an alternate line. (In Ms. Morrison’s voice, given both the timbre of the instrument and the way she plays the scene, a descending line that gets quieter would have made the required dramatic point even more effectively, and without the clearly audible strain.) (The other cast members, by the way are equally winning, and they are Will Erat, Randi Megibow, Mark O’Donnell and Gloria Ptak.)

But if these are not exactly small carps, they are negligible in light of Schak’s primary gift to the approaching millennium: which is a stunningly viable and vibrant rebirth of one of the few overlooked musicals that never deserved its exile, and should have been in constant revival since its premiere.

At twelve-to-fifteen dollars a pop—that being the going off-off Broadway rate—I don’t see how you can afford to miss it. And hurry, because without an extension, it’s only at the 28th Street Theatre through October 31st. Someone has to keep it from being buried again, despite the poor publicity. And as they say in showbiz, tell your friends.

If you can hear me out there, within this cyber-space…

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