BWW Review: THE SIMON & GARFUNKEL STORY at The National Theatre
There is certainly a dramatic story to be told behind the highly successful '60s folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel, from their brief high school success that got them on "American Bandstand" to their later 1960s stardom, their love/hate relationship and mutual artistic dependence. All of that is barely mentioned, though, in the nationally touring "The Simon & Garfunkel Story," currently in a three show run at The National Theatre.
That it is billed as being "direct from London's West End," and presented as part of the Broadway at National season (with Broadway-sized tickets from $70 to $100), it isn't anything approaching a musical. It's staged so starkly it can't even afford a jukebox (or programs).
Rather, it plays like one of those tribute acts that might play down the street at the Hamilton, where musicians take on the canon of an artist while trying to look and sound as much like them as possible. "Beatlemania" was like that - song after song with minimal speeches in between.
Taylor Bloom and Ben Cooley are the two young men meant to be stand-ins for Simon & Garfunkel, respectively. Bloom, who more looks like Tom Cruise than Paul Simon, hails from the Shenandoah Valley and brings with him a compelling finger-picking style that is easiy as effective as his vocals.
Cooley, of New York, lets a blond curls grow into the familiar look of Art Garfunkel. He also sticks his hands in his pockets and slouches down, as Garfunkel did (though he did it for a reason; he was a head taller than Simon; these two guys are much closer in height, eliminating that Mutt and Jeff look of the original pair).
Their voices harmonize well, though it's unfair to expect Cooley come close to Garfunkel's exceptional soaring, so when he's solo, that "Bridge Over Troubled Water" can get on awful shaky moorings.
Though they change costume a few times from ties and vests to turtlenecks, they are never meant to actually be Simon & Garfunkel; instead they tell of the duo through brief Wikipedia-entry fun facts between songs presented largely chronologically.
The show, which has become a kind of international juggernaut, with an international, UK and North American touring companies, is directed and supervised by Dean Elliott. And I suppose it's fun for people to relive the days of Simon & Garfunkel and fire up old memories, augmented by the relentless screen images of the 60s, hippies and so on. But it's not as if the duo is dead; Garfunkel in the flesh will be at Wolf Trap next week; Simon has professed to have stopped touring, but was around in recent years.
For people in Wabash, Spokane and Saskatoon, where the North American tour of "The Simon & Garfunkel Story" continues this year, it may be the only chance to see this wistfully nostalgic approximation of the duo (that's true, too, in Lisbon, Swansea, Hamburg and Bern where the UK and international tours will stop). But the shows are also going to Los Angeles, Chicago and London.
The revue seems to have been created by people who were either not born at the time the duo rose, or had a distinctly European view of their recorded output. What else could explain the inclusion of true rarities like "Leaves That Are Green," "Somewhere Where They Can't Find Me" and "The Big, Bright Green Pleasure Machine" instead of "The Dangling Conversation," "April Come She Will" and "At the Zoo"?
The emphasis on super-deep cuts makes the first act drag a little for fans who may just want to hear the hits, which tend to be loaded more in act two, that begins with "Mrs. Robinson" and "A Hazy Shade of Winter" (both informed more perhaps by cover versions from the Lemonheads and the Bangles respectively, rushed and rocking and a little too booming on the drums).
Backed by a serviceable rock four piece, the only other stagecraft are projections behind them meant to set the scenes, though sometimes it can be incongruous as when Vietnam battles accompany the delicate "Scarborough Fair / Canticle."
"The Simon & Garfunkel Story" may be the only place to hear live versions of sturdy songs like "Keep the Customer Satisfied" and "The Only Living Boy in New York," played back to back. Still, it was surprising to hear the throwaway "Punky's Dilemma" as a representative of the "Bookends" album; weirder still to hear the documentary recording that was included as part of the album, "Voices of Old People," played in its entirety before they did "Old Friends."
Hints of Simon's later solo success were given during an instrumental medley of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover / "You Can Call Me Al" and "Late in the Evening" before a couple of songs meant to represent their big 1981 Central Park reunion.
By then, updates are flashed on the screen to indicate further landmarks (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement). But when they wave farewell to "Bye Bye Love," there's no way anyone believes that they won't come back to play "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The Boxer."
Because this is a concert, and there are encores; not a musical where there are just bows.
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Photo credit: Ben Cooley and Taylor Bloom in "The Simon & Garfunkel Story." Photo by Lane Peters.
The setlist for "The Simon & Garfunkel Story" was:
"The Sound of Silence"
"He Was My Brother"
"Leaves That Are Green
"I Am a Rock"
Somewhere They Can't Find Me"
"The Big, Bright Green Pleasure Machine ..."
"For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her"
"Scarborough Fair / Canticle"
"The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)"
"A Hazy Shade of Winter"
"Keep the Customer Satisfied"
"The Only Living Boy in New York"
"Bye Bye Love"
"Bridge Over Troubled Water