BWW Review: Decades After Pre-Broadway Closing, The York Brings Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry's Controversial LOLITA, MY LOVE To New York
In his indispensable history of Broadway's less-successful musical ventures, "Not Since Carrie," Ken Mandelbaum famously wrote that bookwriter/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer John Barry's effort to bring Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel "Lolita" to the stage "has the singular distinction of being both a complete mistake and a superb adaptation."
After all, to place the relationship between a middle-aged pedophile/murderer and his early adolescent stepdaughter in the minds of readers through written words is one thing, but to place live actors playing out the relationship before an audience through an art form that requires a certain degree of empathy for its central characters and that asks viewers to linger on key moments as songs reveal emotions, is an entirely different test of tolerance.
But Lerner is the librettist who unlocked the key to making musical theatre perfection out of George Bernard Shaw's PYGMALION, after no less than Oscar Hammerstein II gave up on his own attempt, declaring the task impossible. Hence, if Lolita, My Love, which played ill-received engagements in Philadelphia and Boston in 1971 before plans for Broadway were abandoned, wasn't exactly, in its time, regarded as another MY FAIR LADY, it is a work by a musical theatre genius and, as those who have heard the commercially available recording of a Boston performance taken from the theatre's sound board may opine, it does contain moments of brilliance.
Director Emily Maltby's concert staging of Lolita, My Love, presented by the York Theatre Company as part of its Musicals in Mufti series, uses a script constructed by Erik Haagensen using six drafts of the text, two of them penned by Lerner after the move to New York was cancelled. The York's producing artistic director James Morgan guarantees that all the words are Lerner's, making this more of an advanced work of editing rather than a revision. In addition, the score has been reconstructed by music director Deniz Cordell, who, at piano, serves as the entire orchestra.
As created by Nabokov, literature professor Humbert Humbert is one of the printed word's most notoriously unreliable narrators and one of the major challenges in Philadelphia and Boston may have been that the audience thought he was meant to be an object of sympathy. It wasn't until after the production closed that Lerner attempted a remedy by adding the offstage voice of a psychiatrist holding a session with the confessed murderer.
Haagensen goes one step further, placing the doctor on stage. As played by Thursday Farrar, the character not only catches her patient when his narrative contradicts logic but, as a non-singing role, signifies a separation between objective reality and her patient's view of the events, perhaps allowing audiences members to become more comfortable with seeing the subject matter conveyed through the heightened reality of musical theatre.
With less than a week to rehearse and staged to read lines from their scripts, players in Mufti concerts certainly aren't expected to deliver fully-developed acting performances, especially with such a complex character as Humbert Humbert, but Robert Sella accomplishes a quietly devastating portrayal of a man who recognizes why the world may see him as a monster but perhaps sees himself more as a tragic hero. There's a weariness about him, yet he maintains a crisp erudite attitude. He sings with a soft, soothing voice that conveys a beauty that defies the wretchedness of his actions, particularly with the score's best ballad, "In The Broken Promise Land of Fifteen," where Barry's lullaby melody accompanies Humbert's memory of a thwarted sexual encounter of his youth. ("A child was she, a child in years / But who is not till love appears.")
Haagensen specifies the title character to be 14 years old and recent NYU graduate Caitlin Cohn convincingly passes as such. Not just with her looks, but with her acting and singing. Dorothy Loudon famously stole scenes with her comic expertise as Lolita's mother, Charlotte Haze, but Jessica Tyler Wright gives a more realistic take on the insipid vulgarian, highlighted by her spirited belting of her catchy attempt to create a romantic Parisian atmosphere, "Sur les Quais." The broader antics are supplied by George Abud, wildly funny as hedonistic author Clare Quilty.
Nearly fifty years after its initial commercial failure, Lolita, My Love in its current form is revealed as a well-crafted musical theatre piece with fine wit and attractive melodies. Perhaps that's not enough to get it to Broadway, but it's certainly enough to earn a visit to The York's excellent production.