Blahs in the Night

Remember the old scenario about describing a blind date? "Is she (he) cute?" you ask. "Well," comes the halting answer from your friend. "She (he) has a great personality." Of course this means a night with a refugee from the animal shelter.

But let's suppose we update that anecdote for the politically correct Nineties. You recommend a blind date to a friend. She happens to be a top model for the Irene Marie agency. Twice on the cover of Vogue. Stops traffic dead when she Rollerblades down Ocean Drive. "Is she cute?" the friend asks. "She's beautiful," you say. "But..."

"But what?" inquires your friend anxiously.
"She has absolutely no personality," you answer, and the friend groans.
This is exactly the way I feel about the musical revue currently at the Coconut Grove Playhouse on the Adams mainstage. While Harold Arlen was certainly a phenomenal hitmaker, easily the equivalent of Berlin, Gershwin, or any other of his peers, and although his music certainly deserves a tribute of this nature, the Grove's production of Sweet & Hot does only the most superficial service to its subject matter. It is beautifully staged, finely choreographed, well-sung and -danced by the professional cast. It's also hollow and shallow, a waste of time, money, and energy.

In case you don't know (and I didn't), Arlen, an ex-member of a Brooklyn synagogue choir, penned some of the most memorable jazz, blues, and pop-inspired tunes ever to grace the stage and screen. It's an impressive roster of compositions: "Stormy Weather," "One for My Baby," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," "Blues in the Night," "I Love a Parade," "It's Only a Paper Moon," "The Man That Got Away," "Let's Fall in Love," "That Old Black Magic," "Come Rain or Come Shine," not to mention all the music for The Wizard of Oz, including "Over the Rainbow." I took the time to list all of these tunes (the show actually contains more than 30 songs) in order to illustrate how talented and prolific Arlen actually was, even though his name does not stand out in musical history with the prominence of some of his contemporaries.

The show, in fact, should be more enjoyable than it is, considering all the familiar tunes it showcases. The problems with this revue are reminiscent of the flaws in today's musicals that I discussed in my recent review of Shirley MacLaine Live! ("Wanted: Real Stars," January 20); in that piece I described how only a great performer wedded to a great song constitutes an artistic statement. MacLaine, for all her deficiencies in voice and movement, more than compensated with outstanding acting abilities and charisma, the marks of a true star. She understood the songs she sang, embodied them fully, and gently but potently sold them to us. The cast A and the concept behind -- Sweet & Hot does the opposite. The singers feel nothing, instead choosing to push themselves and their product with such insincere intensity you draw away.

At no time did I feel that the director and conceiver of this revue, Julianne Boyd (best known for similar work on Eubie! and A...My Name Is Alice), possessed any great insights into the work of Harold Arlen or in any way revered it. The songs are thrown together, and we never get any information about the body and growth of Arlen's art. New Theatre's recent revue of the music of Leonard Bernstein -- Lenny -- subtly gave the audience a true taste and insight into the composer by adding just a few facts and intelligently grouping songs from different periods and shows. Sweet & Hot never even tries to convey the spirit of Arlen -- it's simply a hit parade.

The cast of three men and three women further diminishes the work. They try so hard and sing so well and dance so carefully that not one of them has the time to take a breath and experience anything. For example, the full-bodied voice of Monica Pege is technically perfect on "Stormy Weather," but where is the sorrow, the emotion so vital to any rendition of this classic blues number? I longed for someone such as Vivian Reed or Roz Ryan, who several years ago belted out similar songs in the Grove (for a show called Blues in the Night) to take this tune and wring the heart out of it.

No one in this cast dares to fly with the music. Consequently, they come off as competent professionals well paid not to make a mistake. When faced with such greatness of composition, you would think someone, at some point in the evening, would forget what they learned in voice class and become lost in the sweetness and heat of the melodies. Unfortunately, no one does. And for this reason, the production lacks the soul necessary for good theater.

It continues to frighten me, this tendency of all the arts to imitate television, where the slick and smooth product without spark, courage, or bite is preferred because it appeals to the lowest common denominator. From what I saw in Sweet & Hot, these performers should be singing jingles, not potential showstoppers like The Man That Got Away. I would love to know why the Playhouse puts on a show such as this one. Is it just to sell tickets? To fill up a season with something pleasant and easy to swallow? Why highlight the music of a genius like Arlen and not follow through with a stellar cast?

As designed by Kenneth Foy, the set is excellent. With just enough color and flash and just enough simplicity, the set perfectly complements the sumptuous costumes of David C. Woolard and expressive lighting by James Tilton. Yes, this show is beautiful to behold. I just don't want to spend the whole evening simply gazing at a stage. Perhaps if I was eating a thick slice of roast beef and drinking a fine glass of wine on a cruise ship, Sweet & Hot would have been adequate dinner theater. As a show standing on its own, though, it is a slight thing, a pretty but dumb mannequin who does not engage anyone's attention in the long run.

With Sweet & Hot, the Grove has now presented three bits of fluff in a row this season, the previous two being the silly sitcom Breaking Legs and the weak comic revue Nunsense 2. It's an odd situation when a reviewer looks forward to a piece by Neil Simon (Jake's Women, the Grove's next production) to lend the theater some desperately needed dramatic weight and import.


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