Tuesday, February 9, 2021

466. SENSATIONS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975.

Marie Santell, John Savage, Joe Masiell. (Photos: Barry Kramer)

SENSATIONS [Musical/Drugs/Romance/Youth] B/LY: Paul Zakrzweski; M: Wally Harper; SC: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; D: Jerry Dodge; S: William and Jean Eckart; C: Jeanne Button; L: Beverly Emmons; P: John Bowab and Charles Celian; T: Theatre Four (OB): 10/25/70-11/8/70 (16)

John Savage, Judy Gibson.

One of a flood of youth-oriented rock musicals that hit the Big Apple in the 70s, Sensations had what was widely considered a fine score. Edith Oliver called the songs “delightful,” and Mel Gussow gushed: “Wally Harper has written one of the best rock show scores I have ever heard—complex, richly textured, even hummable— a perfect answer to anyone who thinks rock is not melodic. Besides those ballads there are three terrific pro test songs—and much more.

But it was wasted on an uneven, misconceived attempt to place the Romeo and Juliet story within a contemporary environment. Unlike West Side Story, the epitome of musical adaptations of the same material, it failed to effect a happy marriage between the Bard and the modern world. Gussow, who found nuggets to enjoy, pointed to the show's claim that it was "suggested" by Romeo and Juliet, asking, "What suggestion? This is no mere rock updating, but a complete overhaul!" 

The show was filled with topical references—drugs, race relations, sex, war, pollution, and so on. As in not a few modern productions (as, for example, the 2013 Broadway production starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashid), Romeo (John Savage), was white and Juliet (Judy Gibson)—despite white parents—black. Capulet (James Ray) was impotent and Lady Capulet (Paulette Attie) "a bitch in heat." The Friar (Arthur Bartow) was played like a red-nosed burlesque comic. He even sang a little ditty that went, "Masturbation, fellatio, bestiality, vodeododo" (Hair, of course, had beat him to it.)

A gay Mercutio (Bruce Scott) and Tybalt (Ron Martin), the latter also incestuously inclined toward Lady Capulet, and various other campy ideas, led Martin Gottfried to compare the work to that of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Oliver snapped that it was “a fumbling attempt (and an extraordinarily disagreeable one, for all its fervor),” “a fatuous charade.” And Arthur Sainer rapped it as “pure bullshit, long on d├ęcor, short on heart.”

In John Savage, Sensations provided a boyishly attractive young actor who would have, if not a sensational career, several years in which his star shone bright. Still, his performance left much to be desired, Gussow stating that "he looks dyspeptic as Romeo, and plays his Shakespearean lines weakly."