Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels

by Sarah Taylor Ellis

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 24, 2010

Michael McKean in Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels
Michael McKean in Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels  (Source: Craig Schwartz)

Randy Newman's expansive American songbook seems inherently theatrical, with music and lyrics often depicting specific characters and dramatic situations. So why does Harps and Angels, a new revue of Newman's music currently running at the Mark Taper Forum, feel so lifeless?

Conceived by Jack Viertel, Harps and Angels is a show in search of a theme. This jukebox musical does not construct a fictional narrative in the vein of Mamma Mia! even though wisps of narrative occasionally attempt to tie songs together. For instance, Matthew Saldivar's rendition of "Real Emotional Girl" contextualizes Storm Lange's preceding "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" as the lament of a woman whose heart he broke.

Nor does Harps and Angels construct a biography of the composer even though Michael McKean is an obvious stand-in for Newman in several autobiographical songs. Reminiscent of the recent Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim, Newman himself introduces a few numbers via video projections, yet this organizing principle is also inconsistently employed. To add to the confusion, character-driven numbers feel at odds with the political commentary of songs such as "Great Nations of Europe."

The astonishing range of Newman's music suffers from rather drab direction by Jerry Zaks and musical staging by Warren Carlyle. From staging to lighting, from orchestral colors to tempi, Harps and Angels lacks dynamics. One number plods after another as a performer stands center stage, sits in a rocking chair, or simply lies in bed to sing. Most numbers are standalone solos, and even ensemble numbers foster little engaging interaction among performers. The performers - Ryder Bach, Storm Large, Adriane Lenox, Michael McKean, Katey Sagal, and Matthew Saldivar - are all gifted singers, but they are saddled with a show that gives them little driving dramatic action within or between songs.

Much of the revue's action is provided by Marc I. Rosenthal's background projections and moveable video screens, setting Newman's music in contextual concrete where once it floated in the listener's imagination. Blunt images of George Bush in "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," Karl Marx in "The World Isn't Fair," and slaves in "Sail Away" limit the horizon of meanings in a given song.

While a Randy Newman aficionado will surely appreciate such a well-performed tribute to his music, the theatrical trappings seem to be precisely that: trapping and confining, rather than offering a new lens on this remarkable oeuvre of work.

With crisp music direction and a tight orchestra led by Michael Roth, the most enjoyable parts of the evening focus on the music. Audiences experience the delight of recognition in the cleverly pieced-together overture, and Randy Newman himself leaps to the video screens to end the night in a sing-along reprise of "I Love L.A." Perhaps a concert would have provided a more fitting arena for such a skillfully performed, yet rather disjointed and surprisingly undramatic revue.

Performances through Dec. 12 in The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand, Los Angeles. The box office is at 0213-628-2772 or buy tickets online through the CTG box office.

Sarah Taylor Ellis is a PhD candidate in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA. She is also a musical theater composer, music director, and accompanist (www.staylorellis.com).