Harps and Angels, LA

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
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Michael McKean and Storm Large in “Harps and Angels”
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Harps and Angels

Music and lyrics by Randy Newman
Conceived by Jack Viertel
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Through Dec. 22, 2010
(See video clip below.)

“Breathes there the man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, ‘I love Randy Newman.’?” Well, possibly such a person exists, but fortunately I don’t know him. Newman manages to be original, clever, ironic, and political—all against a background of rock/country/jazz and who knows what other kinds of music. The songs flow seemingly effortlessly. He is the whole package: a talented and productive composer and ingenious lyricist.

Director Jack Viertel has woven a large part of Newman’s discography into the revue now at the Mark Taper, “Harps and Angels.” There is no story, no dialogue to string it all together. The thread is time. “Harps and Angels” is made up of a selection of songs Newman has written over his lifetime; songs that have become increasingly autobiographical as he has aged.

The staging is clean. Michael Roth’s band of eight is elevated behind a scrim that allows them to be seen from time to time. Marc I. Rosenthal’s clever projections are set against screens that shift and combine creatively to encompass everything from a frenetic collage for “I Love L.A.” to a classic Andy Warhol-like quartet of colored photos of Ryder Bach singing (I am) “The Man” with the anguish of an awkward adolescent imagining greatness.

“Harps and Angels” is fresh and fast paced. Right from the start a broadcast recording of Randy Newman giving the “no cell phone, no recording, etc.” warning sets the tone with his classic mocking style. The cast slips lightly from one persona to another. The music is saucy and so are they. This might not be theater as we have come to expect it at the Taper, but it is witty, pointed, fast-paced, toe-tapping entertainment. I loved it like “I Love L.A.”

Adriane Lenox brings a pitch perfect attitude to any number she is a part of. There is no program credit, leading to the assumption that Lenox choreographed herself (brava). Storm Large, a rock musician cum author and actor, brings a saucy energy belying her “singing and slinging inappropriate banter” for 20 years. The only actor to have anything resembling a specific role is Michael McKean, the senior member of the cast. He loosely represents a Randy Newman-like figure, to the extent that anyone in this production has a designated persona.

Had I written this review at intermission that would about cover it. I would have gone home a very happy camper. But there is a second act and, in all honesty I must report, it did not live up to the promise of Act I. Was it the staging? No, that is consistently tight.The performances? Absolutely not. And the orchestra? Not on your life. It was the choice of less captivating material. Act I is full of sharp cynicism; however, fueled by selections such as “Short People” and “Big Hat, No Cattle” the tone is still one you can joyfully loose yourself in. It mocks authority and even when shadows of mortality creep in, it is with phrases such as “God bless the potholes down memory lane.” You have to love it.

Newman is now in his 60s. His current material deals with appropriate issues for a man his age, issues such as mortality. Mortality, however, does not fit so well into the framework of a review like “Harps and Angels.” A song like “Old Man,” about a lonely old man lying comatose in a hospital bed, is poignant and gripping but feels out of place just one number from “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and two from a reprise of “I Love L.A.” The evening becomes a different story that deserves to be told in a less disjointed and more profound way.

Will “Harps and Angels” have legs? Hard to say, but unlikely without some additional material and editing. Clearly this aims to be a production in the mode of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” Randy Newman’s oeuvre merits such treatment. “Harps and Angels” is not quite there yet. Maybe a little work will do the trick. Newman deserves it.

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