Harold and Maude: Deeeeep In December
The first big laugh of Harold and Maude (Don't worry, I'm not going to give them all away.) occurs about ten seconds into the overture, when the opening phrases of solemn funereal church music suddenly halt and a whimsical soft-shoe takes over. He may not have written the music or orchestrations, but that abrupt change is your first signal that this is definitely a Tom Jones musical.
If not musical theatre's oldest living beatnik, Tom Jones is certainly the one with the longest running Off-Broadway musical. Still often seen sporting turtlenecks and a goatee, you can easily picture him as an adventurous young writer in the heart of 1960 Greenwich Village (they used the full name in those days), utilizing aspects of commedia, vaudeville, Chinese theatre and Shakespearean-style verse to adapt a Rostand play into the book and lyrics of The Fantasticks, a strikingly different musical for its time. And although his numerous collaborations with the recently-retired composer Harvey Schmidt have on occasion delved into more traditional Broadway fare, Jones' work especially dazzles in eccentric little pieces like Celebration and Philemon. Following in their footsteps, with lively and tuneful music by his new collaborator, Joseph Thalken, is Harold and Maude, a musical so bursting with youthful brashness you'd think it was written by a couple of 20-somethings.
Although this premiere production does show a few kinks that need to be fixed, there is so much about Harold and Maude that is perfectly splendid enough that some minor uncomfortable moments shouldn't be of major concern. This is an unconventional musical that knows when it's best to do something conventional. This is a show that deals with dark themes without ever being morbid. It's a small-scale show that feels much bigger. It winks at the audience without ever being self-referential. Some may be hesitant to see a musical about an attention-starved young man so fascinated with death that he attends strangers' funerals and frequently fakes suicide, and his relationship with a hip, bohemian 79-year-old that briefly turns romantic, because it would be so easy to make an awful musical out of that plot. But the two hours inhabiting The Paper Mill these days is full of endearing melody, quirky-fun humor and good old fashioned musical comedy uplifting charm.
Devotees of the 1971 film, which this piece is based on, will have to resign themselves to the fact that the musical not only changes the plot a bit, but softens up the cold, darkly comic mood of the original. And with good reason. Musical theatre is an empathetic art form and, with rare exceptions, the personal connection between live performers and audience necessitates sympathetic characters. (You want proof? Compare the film and musical versions of The Producers) But that doesn't mean we're dealing with another Annie here. The opening scene is of a 19-year-old Harold, sullen, silent and nicely dressed, pinning a suicide note to his jacket before hanging himself in his single mother's living room, only hours before a very important dinner party. The new maid is shocked by the sight, but mom just angrily sings a comic number to his dangling body about how he never thinks of anyone but himself. And that's when the fun begins.
Mom signs Harold up with a snobby computer dating service, determined to get him married (she fills out the questionnaire with her own preferences), but Harold finds a new friend in the elderly, but vivacious Maude who, like him, loves to visit funerals. Maude has her own, less fatal, view of death as simply another step in our cosmic journey. She also likes to steal cars when she needs to get someplace, hang out in a tree house, smoke from a hookah and she plays a mean banjo-ukulele. Maude exposes Harold to a world of risk taking, and in the most basic of musical comedy terms, she teaches him how to sing and dance. Her relationship with Harold is grandmotherly, with a brief and tasteful moment of something more.
Maude is natural role for Estelle Parsons, who excels at playing realistic characters with a hint of eccentricity. She's perky and lovable with a surprisingly strong singing voice. Eric Millegan begins as a wonderfully deadpan Harold. An effective move by the authors is to not have the character sing until very late in the first act. Gradually, awkwardly, in the great tradition of musical comedy characters who eventually learn how to melodically break out and have a good time, Harold feels the music inside of him and Millegan makes his transformation a joyous occasion.
Although the show has two nicely developed title characters, the rest of the company is played for laughs, with director Mark S. Hoebee usually keeping things from slipping into caricature. Donna English is very funny as a stereotypical social-climbing mom trying to keep up her elegant appearance. As are Danny Burstein and Donna Lynne Champlin, popping in and out continually as a variety of characters. Champlin's big moment comes in Act II where, as an avant-guard actress and potential date for Harold, she musically acts out an elaborate summary of a perfectly awful musical drama called Montezuma, a highlight of the evening. Burstein has the unfortunate task of trying to put over the show's weakest musical moment. As a therapist seemingly obsessed with anal retention, he's stuck with a little ditty called "Flush It Out!", which can use a more delicate lyric, or better still, an entirely new premise.
But the rest of the score contains plenty of delights. There are some lovely waltzes, especially Maude's "The Cosmic Dance", which Jones provides with grand lyrical flourishes. "Song In My Pocket" opens Act II with a snappy, 1920's style hummable tune for the two leads and once Harold learns to loosen up a bit he gets a sprightly vaudevillian comic turn in the title number. Thalken's orchestrations for a ten musician orchestra match the charm of his music.
The sparse set by Rob Odorisio appears meant to take a back seat to Ruppert Bohle's upstage projections which cleverly do the work of changing scenes and providing a bit of comic commentary on the action. They make the production seem much bigger than it really is. Miguel Angel Huidor's costumes give Harold a properly starched look to contrast with Maude's colorful bohemian get-ups and, with the help of Bettie O. Rogers' wigs, help completely transform Burstein and Champlin in their many different aliases.
The kinks? Well, Act II is much stronger than Act I, which is a bit slow in plot development and could use a better moment to take us to intermission. A couple of the walk-on characters may go a bit too far with the racial stereotypes, but as a premiere production Harold and Maude looks very close to being ready for a transfer across the Hudson. It's the kind of show that both grandma and the teenagers can enjoy. Just make sure someone's sitting between them.
Photos by Jerry Dalia; Top: Eric Millegan and Estelle Parsons
Center: Danny Burstein and Eric Millegan; Bottom: Eric Millegan and Estelle Parsons