Touched by an Impresario
When he was 107 years old, the story goes, Broadway legend George Abbott was asked what he thought was the most important development in the theater to have taken place in his lifetime. His answer: "Electricity." Although his active career as an actor, director, and producer spanned some six decades (from the first time he hit the boards in 1913 until his direction of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 1962) and didn't really end till his writing of Frankie in 1990, Abbott never actually worked under gaslights. It just seems that way.
In fact the impresario, who died in Miami in 1995 at age 107, never really stopped working. As a mentor to Harold Prince and an advisor to many others, he put his imprimatur on some 122 productions up through the Nineties, even though the sort of musicals that built his legacy (The Boys From Syracuse, Pal Joey, Wonderful Town, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees) had by then long disappeared from the Great White Way. Enter Mister Abbott -- A Broadway Legacy, the world premiere that's one-part revue of songs from Abbott shows and one-part vanity project. (Abbott's widow, Joy, who along with Miami Herald theater critic Christine Dolen is writing a biography of her husband, is one of the show's co-creators and directors.) The Florida Stage is presenting Mister Abbott as its summer musical. The result is a sampler that couldn't have come about without Abbott's genius and yet doesn't really shed much light on it.
Don't blame the six-member cast, which, in Florida Stage tradition, is in excellent form, as is the three-piece onstage band. Mister Abbott comprises nearly three dozen tunes from the songbooks of Rodgers and Hart, Comden and Green, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Adler and Ross, and Kander and Ebb. There are worse ways to spend an evening than listening to hits by these geniuses, whether it's the entire company singing the tender lullaby "It's a Quiet Thing" from Kander and Ebb's Flora the Red Menace (a show unlikely to be staged again) or the effervescent Sheryl McCallum belting out "I Can Cook, Too," the sassy comedy number from On the Town.
Obscure but worthy songs get their due, as when all three male cast members (Doug Blevins, Tom Kenaston, and Adam Pelty) harmonize on "My Romance," a lovely ballad from Jumbo, or the melancholy "A New Town Is a Blue Town," from The Pajama Game. (What most people remember from that show is a newcomer named Shirley MacLaine, who got her big break by leaving the chorus to substitute for Carol Haney in a song called "Steam Heat.")
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At the same time, the audience can sing along to chestnuts such as "Once in Love with Amy," led by the likable Pelty or bathe in the memories of Broadway's big moments. Listen again as the protagonist of Damn Yankees (played here by the charming Blevins), having sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a career as a baseball star, bids his wife farewell in the bitterly funny "Goodbye, Old Girl."
During some of the show's best moments, Ellen Sowney puts the fire into the unforgettable number "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets" also from Damn Yankees, and with Kenaston gives a snappy demonstration of a contrapuntal duet with "You're Just in Love" from Call Me Madam, the show that Abbott directed and Irving Berlin composed, with a book by the celebrated team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. What else is here? "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" from Pal Joey, "Comedy Tonight" from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and "New York, New York" from On the Town, just to name a few.
With works like these to perform, it's hard to go wrong. For my money McCallum's cavernous vocal chords and Kenaston's dancing and impish personality are the stars of Mister Abbott; the rest of the performers are all in good voice but are not born dancers. Choreographer Lynnette Barkley, a cocreator who also directs, faces a challenge in moving six bodies around the Florida Stage's postage-stamp-size performance space, and the results are sometimes workmanlike. A pseudo-ballet for "Six Months Out of Every Year" from Damn Yankees, in which baseball widows push their husbands around the stage in easy chairs, is by far the most innovative number.
The problem with carving a revue from Abbott's work is one of having too much with which to work. What to include? What to leave out? Why not pick something from Fiorello! (the show about Fiorello La Guardia that won Abbott a Pulitzer in 1959) instead of the silly "Buckle Down, Winsocki" from Best Foot Forward? Indeed, given the richness of choices available, everyone will have his or her own ideas of what should and should not stay. More Pal Joey and less Damn Yankees? (With five songs it's almost overrepresented.) Less Rodgers and Hart and more Comden and Green? Who can decide? The creators seem to have gone for breadth rather than depth.
The result is a show that often feels more like a hodgepodge musical sampler than a guided tour through Abbott's career. Some songs are cut down to just a few measures; others, devoid of their dramatic context, are unremarkable. Furthermore there's no identifiable organizational concept. Occasionally the creators attempt to throw in tidbits about Abbott's life. He "narrates" some numbers -- or at least an off-stage voice talks to performers as though a director were overseeing an audition. But other off-stage voices also pop up. In one case we're told that Abbott pioneered the use of a voice-overs during a song. In another we learn about Ray Walston, whose experience meeting Abbott prior to starring in Damn Yankees is recounted via his own voice-over. There's no consistent point of view. No doubt cocreators Joy Abbott, Craig D. Ames, Lynnette Barkley, and J. Barry Lewis could've used some help from the master himself.
An even greater obstacle to presenting Abbott's career is that, despite references in the show to the "Abbott touch," no particular characteristic denotes an Abbott work. His is the story of a man who, thanks to his unique talent, propelled himself into the right place at the right time (okay, 122 right times) and was able to work with and influence his most brilliant contemporaries -- from Harold Prince to Jerome Robbins, Jule Styne, and Leonard Bernstein. His mounting of On the Town, with Bernstein, Comden, and Green, which took only six months to put together, is legendary. His ability to take a failing show and turn it into gold is myth in every sense of the word.
In addition to producing and directing, Abbott was best known for doctoring the works of other directors. At one point the performers in Mister Abbott tell us that Abbott's gifts were his judgment and his taste. That's accurate, perhaps, but nearly impossible to demonstrate. Unlike, say, the more famous "Lubitsch touch," for which you can point to a moment on film and isolate some bit of action or a visual fillip that identifies director Ernst Lubitsch, the Abbott touch took place, in most cases, before the show opened. In Mister Abbott we see the magic that resulted without ever really understanding the man who waved the wand.
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