The first temptation in reviewing "The Education of Randy Newman" is to say something simple, definitive and wrong. Say he's a popular songwriter, that the show is an anthology of his works over many years. Say that it's witty and clever and brightly entertaining, or say that he writes with an edge that evokes Kurt Weill, and the sweet sentimentality of Stephen Foster. Say that he's best known for hit songs like "Short People" or his Disney movie scores. Say that this is a charming, energetic and entertaining evening - say any of that and you've fallen into the trap. Randy Newman is all of those things, but not quite any of them, and much more than each description conveys.
This is a songwriter who writes ditties with the narrative depth and insight of a novelist, the natural voice of a storyteller, and the perverse sensibility of classic cabaret. Take any song in this show and you will have a fair example of what Randy Newman is about. But it's only with the whole evening, with the shifting tones and moods and ironic mis-direction and searing self-revelation that you finally come to realize how brilliant and complex this artist really is. Michael Roth, Jerry Patch and Randy Newman have devised an inspired journey through the ambition, compromise, achievement and failure of one man who hears every element of his life and his world set to his own idiosyncratic tunes. Under the dynamic musical direction of Michael Roth, a strong and capable cast delivers that music with sensitivity, power and joy, and Directors Gordon Edelstein and Myron Johnson make sure the drama remains coherent and moving, and that it never feels like a contrivance to accommodate songs. Rather, it is one long and hugely complex musical number, and a full and satisfying autobiography.
Leading this fine cast is Daniel Jenkins, who plays the Newman character with just the right blend of misfit goofus and sensitive artist. Whether it's the young boy being sent off to a boarding school where being a "Four Eyes" will introduce him to the world's ever deepening cruelty, or the excruciating "Take Me Back", at the end of a bitter romantic breakup, Mr. Jenkins shows us how much these "Stupid Little Songs" contain of this one man's life. A searing satire like "Red Necks" gives "Short People" a clearer context, and the overkill of "Political Science" contrasts broad social ideas with the intimacy of the achingly personal "I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do". Terrific singers like Lovena Fox, Allan Louis and Brooke Sunny Moriber deliver them with taste and talent. Cathy Richardson, in particular, has the same kind of essential musicality as Newman, and when she sings it is as natural as breathing, as common and convincing in its inflection as everyday conversation.
Adding to this being so much more than a "greatest hits" revue was the ingenious and complex projection design by Wendell K. Harrington, which creates not just changing scenery on the back wall, but also a kind of simultaneous bio-pic which is both narrative and scenic. That is only one element of Douglas Stein's excellent scenic design, which incorporates a mechanical set of traps and levels and unobtrusive furniture, the smart costumes of Martin Pakledinaz and David Weiner's well-crafted lighting design. Everything about this production is handsomely executed, and contributes to the sense of wholeness and depth in the material.
I went into this show not really knowing much more than the average Joe about Randy Newman, and came out filled with appreciation and admiration for this enormous creative talent. Best of all, I finally have a real sense of how this man's body of work all fits together, how profoundly misleading it is to think that any small piece of the elephant describes the whole. At a time when most of our popular artists can be described in a "People" magazine paragraph, what a delight it is to spent two hours listening and end up thinking, "You know, I think I need to hear a lot of that again, and this time I'll listen a little more closely". "The Education of Randy Newman" is a graduate course in what songwriting can do, and how smart theatre people can make ideas into events that move, amuse and engage us.
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