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On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: Theater Review

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - H 2011
Paul Kolnik
David Turner, Jessie Mueller and Harry Connick Jr. in "On a Clear Day"

The Bottom Line

Harry Connick Jr. stars in this bold if not quite successful stab at fixing a flawed show.

Venue

St. James Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast

Harry Connick Jr., David Turner, Jessie Mueller, Kerry O’Malley, Drew Gehling

Director

Michael Mayer

Harry Connick Jr. and his castmates make magic with the melodious score, but despite an adventurous gender-switch, the problematic 1965 musical remains as over-complicated as ever in this radical rethink.

NEW YORK – Respect to director Michael Mayer and playwright Peter Parnell for their audacious attempt at reinventing a problematic musical in the Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. The 1965 show has always been much loved for its lush Burton Lane score but denied the stamp of greatness by Alan Jay Lerner’s over-complicated structural mess of a book. Switching the gender of one point of the story’s romantic triangle, the new team has turned it into On a Queer Day. It’s an interesting twist but one that does little to alleviate the high-concept issues while also fragmenting the eccentric charms of what used to be the central character. 

The show was a vehicle on Broadway for Barbara Harris, and in the uneven 1970 Vincente Minnelli film, for Barbra Streisand. Kristen Chenoweth starred in a 2000 concert staging that reconfirmed its strengths and weaknesses. Their role, as originally conceived, was Daisy Gamble, a chain-smoking New York kook with ESP, low self-esteem and a miraculous green thumb. Attempting to cure her nicotine addiction, she underwent hypnosis, regressing to a previous incarnation as tragic 18th century English beauty Melinda Wells. The shrink fell in love with Melinda while Daisy fell in love with the shrink. Complications ensued.

In Mayer and Parnell’s radical overhaul, Dr. Mark Bruckner has become the central figure and the major marquee muscle, drawing Harry Connick Jr. back to Broadway for his first musical comedy role since The Pajama Game in 2006. Moved forward from the ‘60s to 1974 and framed as the doc’s keynote address at an American Psychoanalytic Association conference, the story now charts the bumpy treatment of David Gamble (David Turner).

A gay Greenwich Village florist unusually susceptible to hypnosis, Davy seeks treatment from Mark, who suspects that his inability to quit smoking may be linked to his reluctance to fully commit to his perfect boyfriend Warren (Drew Gehling). During therapy, the calendar flips back to 1943 and out pops aspiring big-band singer Melinda (Jessie Mueller), fully equipped with the confidence and drive that Davy lacks. As their sessions multiply from once a week to every night, Melinda’s brief blaze of glory unfolds. She yanks widowed Mark out of his extended grief funk, opening him up to love again. At the same time, Mark inadvertently casts a spell over David, who was born on the day Melinda died and remains clueless as to what’s going on when he’s under hypnosis.

Parnell’s new script is not short on humor, and clearer than it’s convoluted plotting might suggest. But it treads a little too obviously into contemporary gay issues when Warren says of Davy: “I would marry him if I could. Why shouldn’t we have what everyone else has?” The bigger problem is that the show doesn’t have enough fun with the romantic confusion. Only in the first-act closing number, “Melinda,” when Mark and Melinda dance a steamy cheek-to-cheek and Davy rises from the couch to join in is the full comic potential of this unwitting threeway exploited. 

By physically splitting David and Melinda into two performers, the show effectively reduces them to half a character apiece, which compromises the chemistry of both of them with Mark. All three leads are appealing and handle the wonderful songs with ease. But they somehow never knit together into an engaging trio.

One obstacle in their way is the over-designed show’s suffocating visuals, which all but swallow the characters. After their brilliant collaborations on Spring Awakening and American Idiot, Mayer and set designer Christine Jones’ concept here is a miss. Taking their cue from the mind-warping hypnosis theme, the garish sets mix op-art patterns with bold stripes, doused in shifting colors by Kevin Adams’ lighting. It’s as if a gift-wrap factory exploded. After recent revivals of Bye Bye Birdie, Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, this stylized retro look has become an exhausted cliché for mid-century American musicals.

Costumer Catherine Zuber appears to have trawled the vaults of The Sonny and Cher Show for inspiration, supplying additional distraction. An amusing nod from Turner to Cher’s trademark hair-toss during one number reinforces that reference. While the famously bloated production numbers of the original Broadway run have been excised, the go-go cutesiness of songs like “Wait ‘Til We’re Sixty-Five” and “When I’m Being Born Again” is a little cringe-inducing.

What the production does have unequivocally in its favor is the melodious score. Under music director Lawrence Yurman, Doug Besterman’s full-bodied orchestrations sound glorious. Song after song, including such standards as “Come Back to Me” and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” delivers.

While the title number is an imperfect fit for Connick’s Sinatra-esque stylings, his honey-toned vocals are a constant pleasure, particularly when they acquire a brooding quality in the more introspective songs. If the performer’s natural charisma seems somewhat tamped-down in book scenes compared to his seductive turn in Pajama Game, fans of the singer will not feel short-changed.

Turner fits the sweet, daffy spin put on the newly minted role, and Mueller is a genuine discovery. She aces the brassy 1940s jazz numbers with period-appropriate finesse, notably on the knockout “Ev’ry Night at Seven,” one of four Lane/Lerner songs interpolated from the 1951 Fred Astaire-Jane Powell film, Royal Wedding. Stellar support comes also from Gehling (his number “Love With All the Trimmings” and one other were added from the On a Clear Day movie) and Kerry O’Malley as Mark's subconsciously pining psychiatric colleague, whose affections he is too despondent to notice.

If this production is a mixed bag, hearing these songs in the hands of a full orchestra and vocally talented cast is its own reward. And given how many great scores remain archived away because the shows that contain them are unviable, Mayer and Parnell at least deserve credit for this adventurous experiment.

Venue: St. James Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Harry Connick Jr., David Turner, Jessie Mueller, Kerry O’Malley, Drew Gehling, Sarah Stiles, Paul O’Brien, Heather Ayers, Lori Wilner, Benjamin Eakeley, Alex Ellis, Tyler Maynard, Zachary Prince, Alysha Umphress
Director: Michael Mayer
Music: Burton Lane
Lyrics/Original book: Alan Jay Lerner
New book: Peter Parnell, reconceived by Michael Mayer
Set designer: Christine Jones
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Choreographer: Joann M. Hunter
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Music director/vocal & instrumental music arrangements: Lawrence Yurman
Presented by Tom Hulce & Ira Pittelman, Liza Lerner, Broadway Across America, Joseph Smith, Michael McCabe, Bernie Abrams/Michael Speyer, Takonkiet Viravan/Scenario Thailand, Michael Watt, Jacki Barlia Florin-Adam Blanshay/Chauspeciale/Astrachan & Jupin, Paul Boskind and Martian Entertainment, Brannon Wiles, Carlos Arana/Christopher Maring