Friday, July 6, 2018

44 (2018-2019): Review: ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (seen July 5, 2018)

"The Search for Melinda Welles"

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, now being given a well-sung but middling revival at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is better known for three standard tunes—especially its gorgeous title number—than because of anything its insipid book contributed to the history of musical theatre.
Craig Waletzko, Melissa Errico, William Bellamy. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
 Of course, as the product of a collaboration involving the great lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner (Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot), it comes bearing the usual load of anecdotal baggage, like the fact that its original leading man, movie star Louis Jourdan, was replaced before the opening by the then 35-year-old John Cullum who costarred with Barbara Harris. And director Bob Fosse lost his job to Robert Lewis.

A good idea of the Harris-Cullum combination is preserved here, from a TV show hosted by Cyril Ritchard, albeit the clip has syncing problems. Harris shows why she was such a beloved Broadway presence while Cullum demonstrates his leading man stature and vocal powers in what comes off now as an old-fashioned, British-influenced style. Yet I got more from this video, with its focus on several songs, than the show at the  Irish Rep.
Daisy Hobbs, Melissa Errico, Caitlin Galogly Flori Bagel. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Without those three special songs—the others are “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have Now?” and “Come Back to Me”—and several other contenders, the show would be little more than a Broadway footnote. The score, though, is simply unable to overcome an untenable script that has foiled all comers, no matter how desperate their attempts to reshape it.

When the show premiered on Broadway in 1965, in an elaborate, expensive production costing the then huge sum of $600,000 (top ticket price: $11.90), it ran for a mere 280 performances. It was intended as the first collaboration of Lerner with the equally great composer Richard Rodgers; when their working methods clashed, Rodgers dropped out and Lerner teamed up with another musical luminary, Burton Lane (Finian’s Rainbow), with whom he’d created the score for the Fred Astaire-Jane Powell film, Royal Wedding. Lane, who complained bitterly about the book, later said the time spent working on the show with the undisciplined, substance-abusing Lerner were “the worst two years of my life.”

Although the plot’s source has been associated with Berkeley Square, John H. Balderston’s 1926 play about a man transported back in time to London during the American Revolution, it’s hard for anyone around in the mid-1950s not to recall the enormous fascination of the public with stories of ESP and reincarnation (both serious preoccupations of Lerner) represented, in particular, by amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein’s bestselling nonfiction 1956 book, The Search for Bridey Murphy.
Melissa Errico, Stephen Bogardus. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Bernstein’s book tells of how a Colorado housewife named Virginia Tighe had, while under hypnosis, recalled in remarkable detail her life as a 19th-century Irish woman named Bridey Murphy. In fact, in pondering why the Irish Rep would choose to revive On a Clear Day when nothing in it is noticeably Irish, it almost seems as if the Bridey Murphy connection was responsible.
Stephen Bogardus, Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The hypnotized subject in the show is Daisy Gamble, a young Brooklyn woman equipped, of course, with a stereotypical accent that Melissa Errico, the actress playing her, struggles to get right. Daisy, engaged to a guy named Warren (whose physical presence has been cut from this adaptation), is up for a job where her smoking habit represents a problem. She thus asks a shrink named Dr. Mark Bruckner (Stephen Bogardus) to hypnotize her addiction away.

Daisy, though, who thinks little of herself, is actually a special person. She not only can make plants grow but has a remarkable ability to see into the future, as when she knows the phone is going to ring. She also slips into the past when, under hypnosis, she reveals herself as the reincarnation of an upper-class British woman from the 1790s named Melinda Welles.
Melissa Errico, Craig Waletzko, William Bellamy, Peyton Crim. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
During the scenes in the late 18th century, with everyone (except the observing hypnotist) dressed in period clothing (decently done by Whitney Locher whose weakness is the 1960s clothes), we observe Melinda falling in love with a handsome, womanizing artist named Edward Moncrief (John Cudia, who does a lovely job on “She Wasn’t You”).
John Cudia, Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Dr. Bruckner, who discovers he can hypnotize Daisy by telepathy, is fascinated by Melinda; as Daisy gradually begins to fall for him and he for her, she jealously assumes he’s mainly interested in the British-accented Melinda. For all her powers, which even play a role in preventing an airplane crash, she often seems completely clueless (no mention, by the way, is ever made of her cashing in on her talents). Of course, by the end, girl finally gets boy, if you can say that of costars who—regardless of their various talents—kissed boy and girlhood away long, long ago. 
Melissa Errico and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Director Charlotte Moore has trimmed the show down in the minimalist fashion of John Doyle, eliminating major characters, and supporting the leads with an ensemble of nine, many playing two roles; the bloated 1965 cast had nearly two dozen actors plus singing and dancing choruses swelling the totals by dozens more. A five-piece orchestra, conducted by Gary Adler, and including a harpist, is ensconced in the upstage right corner.
Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
So little is the original book respected that the current version, rewritten here to include several references that clash with the mid-60s time period (like a reference to "gay guys"), is nearly as radical as the 2011 Broadway revival. That one starred Harry Connick, Jr., as Dr. Bruckner, with Daisy converted to a gay florist named David (David Turner), and Melinda (Jessie Mueller) turned into a World War II-style big band songstress. There was also a poorly received ENCORES! Revival at the City Center in 2000 with Kristen Chenoweth and Peter Friedman that seems to have been more faithful to the original, much to its regret.
John Cudia, Melissa Errico. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
James Morgan’s nearly bare setting, which uses a turntable, is lit by Mary Jo Dondlinger, and depends largely on Ryan Belock’s projections of deliberately crude watercolor sketches to suggest the multiple locales.
Melissa Errico and company. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The ensemble, notably diverse in terms of race, age, and physical size, sings and moves well enough to Barry McNabb’s minimal choreography but pushes too hard. An ersatz, two-dimensional quality prevents anything they or the leads do from being affecting or humorous. Everything seems forced in the “Sing out, Louise” mode, almost as if in compensation for the silliness of the impossible book.
Stephen Bogardus. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As the leads, Bogardus and Errico appear miscast. Regardless of their personal charm, attractiveness, and musical talents, there’s a forced, inorganic connection to their characters. Errico, so charming a couple of seasons back in the Irish Rep’s Finian’s Rainbow revival, mugs up a storm in straining for laughs, failing to convince either as the working-class Brooklynite or the elegant Londoner. And, as is true of so many actors today, she seems terribly uncomfortable around cigarettes. Daisy may be a heavy smoker but Errico handles a cigarette like a 10-year-old puffing on a stick of chalk.

Apart from the show’s three standard songs, it’s unclear why On a Clear Day has, within a period of less than two decades, been seen worthy of three revivals, two of them so mistrusting of the original that they had to come up with radical new approaches of their own.    


Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through August 12