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If only Randy Newman had sold his soul to the devil, his Faust might have found its way to Broadway long ago.
As it is, this sole musical written by the Grammy and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter found itself adrift after two productions — in 1995 at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse and the next year at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre — that received highly mixed reviews. Despite a successful 1995 CD that featured an all-star line-up of performers including James Taylor, Don Henley, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Newman himself as the Devil, his adaptation of Goethe’s 19th-century classic drama received no further exposure.
That is, until now, with New York City’s Encores! Off-Center production with Newman reprising his role. Presented for just one performance, Randy Newman’s Faust: The Concert revealed both the strengths of the musical’s score and the problems with its book. While a Broadway production — a la Encores’ revival of Violet seen last year — seems unlikely, it was a welcome opportunity for New York audiences to finally see the show, albeit in a barely staged concert version with its book heavily truncated.
The evening’s jokey, irreverent attitude was immediately evident by the entrance of the composer, clad in a black-and-red cape and sporting devil’s horns. “Hi, I’m Randy Newman,” he jovially announced, before adding, “I’ll soon be submerged in the character I’m playing.” Introducing the work, he comically mused, “Is my Faust the equal of Goethe’s? Only time will tell.”
Director Thomas Kail’s (In the Heights) staging was bare-bones, with a near absence of scenery, save for some rising and descending backdrops of clouds. The performers, including such Broadway vets as Michael Cerveris, Laura Osnes and Tony Vincent, were accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra and the Broadway Inspirational Voice choir under the direction of Michael McElroy.
Featuring over two dozen songs — the line-up and running order varied from the original productions — the show updates the classic legend with its depiction of a wager between the Lord (Isaiah Johnson) and the Devil in which the latter will have the opportunity to live in Heaven if he can persuade a randomly chosen human to sell his immortal soul. Here, the target is Henry Faust (Vincent), a sophomore college student in his eighth year at Notre Dame University. Informed by the Devil of the terms of the deal, the clueless Faust simply asks, “So what’s the catch?”
Seeking to foil the Devil’s plans, the Lord has Cupid shoot an arrow that causes Faust to fall in love with the innocent Margaret (Osnes), even as the Devil finds himself uncharacteristically swooning over her best friend Martha (Vonda Shepard, of Ally McBeal fame). The story inevitably takes a dark turn with such later plot developments as Margaret drowning her newborn child in a creek.
“This is the comic high point of Goethe’s original play,” Newman deadpanned.
The dialogue is frequently wickedly funny, as when the Devil casually inquires of the Lord, “Is the boy well?” Later, asked how he’s been faring, the Devil replies, “I don’t have much to do. Humans think of things to do to each other that even I find offensive. To tell you the truth, I’m bored.”
But the book has been so heavily abridged that the narrative is sketchy and diffuse, with the songs given the task of advancing the story even though many of them are only tangentially related to the plot. Fortunately, Newman’s music — incorporating elements of blues, gospel, ragtime, pop and old-time Americana — shines, and his lyrics not surprisingly contain strong doses of his acidic wit.
Among the musical highlights are Newman’s “Devil’s Reply,” displaying a scathingly irreverent attitude towards religion delivered in the composer’s foggy voice; “Life Has Been Good to Me,” performed with bluesy sultriness by Shepard; “Gainesville,” showcasing Osnes’ luminous soprano; the lament “Little Island,” movingly sung by Cervaris; “Bless the Children of the World,” given a dynamic rendition by Vincent; and the rousing gospel number “Glory Train,” featuring Johnson and the choir. The show’s best-known number, the gorgeous ballad “Feels Like Home,” performed by Shepard and Newman, received an extended ovation.
But for all the musical brilliance on display, the show never quite succeeds as cohesive musical theater. It would need the talents of a far more experienced book-writer to whip it into the kind of shape required for another full-fledged production.
Cast: Randy Newman, Isaiah Johnson, Tony Vincent, Michael Cerveris, Laura Osnes, Vonda Shepard, Brooklyn Shuck, Broadway Inspirational Voices
Director: Thomas Kail
Music and Lyrics: Randy Newman
Scenic designer: Donyale Werle
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: Mark Barton
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
Choreographer: Marcos Santana
Music director: Chris Fenwick
Presented by New York City Center Encores! Off Center
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