The Man That Got Away

The official motto of the Coconut Grove Playhouse is "Broadway by the Bay," but its unofficial one should be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Playhouse has featured a string of successful if skimpy "biomusicals" about great American songwriters and singing stars -- Al Jolson, Al Dubin, Alberta Hunter, and George Gershwin in recent seasons. The Playhouse strategy is always the same, matching timeless tunes with small casts of top-rate talent. The latest in this line is Hoagy -- the Hoagy Carmichael Musical, which traces the life and career of the man who penned some of America's favorite songs -- like "Stardust," "Heart and Soul," and "Georgia on My Mind." The result is a fine showcase for the talented creative team, but the man they have come to praise gets buried.

The show features two prodigious talents: Billy Philadelphia, who plays Hoagy, and B.J. Crosby, the Broadway chanteuse who sings most of the songs. Philadelphia, who bears some resemblance to the thin, long-faced songsmith, offers a laid-back, genial presence as he narrates the show in direct address to the audience, ably mimicking Carmichael's flat, nasal drawl. Philadelphia is also a gifted "piano plucker," deftly knocking off one Carmichael tune after another, aided and abetted by a first-rate jazz sextet. Crosby, gliding in and out of scenes in shimmering gowns, delivers nicely phrased renditions of the old favorites with such power and assurance that just about every number is a showstopper. To this, director Walter Painter adds inventive staging and high-energy choreography, with Bob Gaynor and Joanna Louise as a hard-working and athletic supporting company of two to provide dance interludes within numbers and segues between them. Painter's inventive staging injects pizzazz into some of Carmichael's weaker tunes, but when the time comes for the songsmith's eight or nine classics, Painter wisely tones down the frills and lets Crosby and Philadelphia light up the place on their own.

Crosby goes to town with "Georgia," arranged by Philadelphia as a building, bluesy powerhouse of a number rather than the wistful, reflective versions from Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. For "Rocking Chair," Crosby takes a break from her Broadway-diva look, donning a gray wig and a granny dress to portray a gin-swilling old-timer. Her "Stardust" is another highlight, with some personal vocal touches on the old classic. The sole disappointment is "Skylark," that most delicate, chromatically mutable of Carmichael's tunes, which Crosby delivers with such power and drive, she just about peels the paint off the back wall of the theater. Through all, the veteran jazz sextet nimbly shifts through the wide range of Carmichael's musical styles, from Dixieland to ragtime to jazz and blues.

All of this is admirable, but what's missing is Carmichael. At first glance, Hoagy Carmichael was just another demigod in the pantheon of twentieth-century American tunesmiths. He was enormously popular, like Arlen and Gershwin and Richard Rodgers; musically untrained, like Berlin; and an Indiana Hoosier, like Cole Porter. But Carmichael in fact was an oddball. For starters, he was a practicing lawyer who left his profession to take up songwriting, then singing, then acting -- a rare triple-threat talent. His music developed from and stayed with a middle-American tradition, not the Jewish/Harlem fusion of Tin Pan Alley. A lifelong Republican, Carmichael swam against the political tide of his peers. He never went Continental like Porter or Hollywood like Al Dubin. His music rarely centered on love, lost or found. Instead it looked back longingly at simple American places -- Georgia, Memphis, New Orleans, and especially Indiana -- and ordinary people, with a dry wit and gentle good nature. But while his songs were witty and good-humored, Carmichael's life had plenty of heartache. His first wife committed suicide; his sister also died by her own hand, probably of a drug overdose. His best friend, cornet whiz Bix Beiderbecke, drank himself to death and haunted Carmichael his whole life (he named his son Hoagy Bix). Then there's his reputed stubbornness, his aversion to barbers (he cut his own hair, fearing that barbershops were germ-infested), and a secret romance with movie star Jean Simmons.

In his two autobiographies, Carmichael keeps harking back to his happy days as a college undergrad and views his incredible show-biz success as an unreal if not unpleasant dream. Too bad most of this biographical detail never turns up in Hoagy, which for all its production flash and performing talent remains downright insipid, assiduously avoiding most of the man's drama. As a result, this Hoagy comes across much like Carmichael's stage personality -- amiable, easy-going, and emotionally distant. You never get any insight into who Carmichael was, what made him tick, or why -- in a remarkably wide-ranging, rambling career that sent him from the Midwest to New York and Hollywood -- he chose to write songs about every subject under the sun but himself.

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Ronald Mangravite

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