Theater Review: 'Harps and Angels,' a Musical Revue Featuring the Songs of Randy Newman

A first-rate cast and sharp staging make Randy Newman's wonderful songs sound even better than usual.

If Frank Sinatra was chairman of the board, then Randy Newman is closer to Huck Finn floating down the river of life on a sturdy but unpredictable raft of words and music.

Newman's rebellious and mischievous nature is on full display in the new musical revue Harps and Angels, at the Mark Taper Forum. But the composer-songwriter's Huck Finn side is by no means the only perspective we're drawn to in this amusing and engaging evening. Newman himself doesn't appear onstage (although he does make a few appearances on specially prepared film clips), but the six performers who bring his work to life -- Michael McKean, Katey Sagal, Mathew Saldivar, Adriane Lenox, Ryder Bach, Storm Large -- are each a pleasure to watch and listen to in their own right. Mark I. Rosenthal's evocative projections are also helpful.

The show has been conceived by Jack Viertel and directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks along the lines of a story that gradually emerges entirely through the sense and sensibility of the songs. Just about the time we think we have a handle on one aspect of Newman, another pops up to take its place. Before long the stage is littered with Newmans -- or Newman surrogates -- each one a piece of the puzzle of his life. All in all, it's a journey as simple, complex, contradictory and confounding as life itself -- just what you'd expect from a fellow with the temperament of Huck Finn and the soul of a poet.

The songs, of course, are unique. Many are well-known, such as "Short People," "I Love L.A.," "You've Got A Friend in Me," "Sail Away," " Marie," "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "Feels Like Home," while others are less so, but each makes a distinct and inimitable impression. "Big Hat, No Cattle," a devastating sendup of a country singer whose life is a lie with a smile pasted on its face, zeroes in on its target and shows no mercy. "Shame" brings us an older man -- in all his desperation -- trying to hold on to the affections of a much younger woman and doing a very bad job. The number is well-staged to bring out the inherent dishonesty of the situation, a favorite theme of Newman's.

Several political songs make their case with varying degrees of bluntness and dispatch. "The Great Nations of Europe" is a darkly satirical look at the wreckage left by the colonial powers, while "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" takes dead aim at the Bush administration. Other songs ease up on the satire and aim for the heart, but even in these romantic ballads there's usually a twist or two and a looming darkness.

Part of the tension of Newman's work comes from the fact that he's an insider as well as an outsider. Born in L.A. to a legendary musical family, he grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood rich and famous. Moving to New Orleans for several years as a child, apparently the Huck Finn gene was activated. In any event, the mix of perspectives informs nearly all his work. As the Lord says in "Relax, Enjoy Yourself," a Newman song not presented in the show, "My ways are mysterious / Sometimes even to myself."

By the time we get to Newsman's last album, Harps and Angels, which ends the show, we're ready for a little preaching to sum things up, however hesitantly. God warns the poor soul who thought he was about to die on the cold pavement that, if he wants to make it to the afterlife, he'd "better keep his business clear / 'Fore they lay you on the table."

On that score, Newman should be a shoo-in. More or less.

Venue: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles (Through Dec. 22)
Cast: Ryder Bach, Storm Large, Adriane Lenox, Michael McKean, Katey Segal, Matthew Saldivar
Music and lyrics: Randy Newman
Conceived by: Jack Viertel
Director: Jerry Zaks
Musical staging: Warren Carlyle
Projection design: Mark I. Rosenthal
Musical direction and arrangements: Michael Roth
Orchestrations: David O and Michael Roth
Scenic designer: Stephen Olson
Lighting designer: Brian Gale
Costume designer: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Sound designer: Philip G. Allen