STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Greenwillow Revisited

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Greenwillow Revisited I've got to start playing the lottery. I mean, if there can be not one, but two productions of Greenwillow currently on the boards -- and in Florida and Utah, yet -- anything can happen.

I've got to start playing the lottery. I mean, if there can be not one, but two productions of Greenwillow currently on the boards -- and in Florida and Utah, yet -- anything can happen.

Frank Loesser's penultimate Broadway musical -- produced nearly four years after The Most Happy Fella and 19 months before H2$ -- was technically his only Broadway failure. The catch? His 1965 show, Pleasures to Palaces, an adaptation of a one-performance flop called Once There Was a Russian, closed in Detroit. (There are many plays that have run longer than their musical versions -- The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Diary of Anne Frank immediately come to mind -- but none makes as ironic a statement as Once There Was a Russian's besting Pleasures and Palaces.)

Greenwillow was an adaptation of a reasonably popular novel of the same name by Beatrice Joy Chute. The novel, which I read on the plane ride to Utah, has an eccentric sense. Greenwillow is a rustic land, where resident Amos Briggs married Martha, before taking off for months, if not years. Time to time, he comes home for a visit, and Martha is just so happy to see him. He always impregnates her, and by the time he comes home again, there's a new kid waiting for him. He now has six.

The oldest is Gideon (better known as "the Tony Perkins role"), who now has grave doubts about his father's behavior. How can he marry the pretty Dorrie when he'll probably repeat the sins of his father?
The musical's original book, by Loesser and Lesser Samuels, has now been revamped by Walter Willison, that Tony-nominee from Two by Two, and his writing partner Douglas Holmes. They got the production not only in Florida, but also at the Utah Festival Opera Company in downtown Logan, at a house now known as the Ellen Eccles Theatre.

"Some years ago," says general director Michael Ballam, "I wasn't feeling well, and came back home to Utah to get some rest. During that 48-hour-time frame, I heard they were going to be knocking down our theater and this whole block full of vacant, boarded-up stores. Well, I just didn't want that to happen."

Ballam recovered, and, in fact, now feels better than ever, because he recovered the theater, too. With savvy and skill, he convinced town fathers and other power-brokers that they had something really special here. Now there's the Utah Festival Opera Company ensconced in the handsome, refurbished 1,100-seat house. The stores to the right and left are bustling with activity.

So's the Festival, which does a three-show season: One opera (this year's is Tosca), one operetta (The Merry Widow), and one musical. Fanny and 1776 were done a while back, and Greenwillow -- subtitled "the musical folktale" -- is now on tap.

If you fear that an opera company would plague Greenwillow with divas and tenors who just want to show us Their Beautiful Voices, well, not this time. Director Vincent Liotta made sure that musical theater characterization came first, and bel canto second. Though it should be noted that Carol Chickering, as Dorrie, sure made something glorious out of the melisma in "Gideon Briggs, I lov-uh-uh-uhve you."
Do you know the world "melisma?" It sounds like an affliction, doesn't it? ("Gee, I've got to get this melisma removed from the back of my neck.") What it actually is, though, is a syllable stretched over more than one note. Best example: From Oliver -- "Where-air-air-air-air is love?" Using a melisma has, in the rarefied world of show music, often been considered an inferior way of writing a song, and Loesser almost always avoided the practice.

But not in Greenwillow. With the sole exception of "Could've Been a Ring," he put at least one melisma in each song. When I go to my final reward -- and if it turns out to be the same place where Frank Loesser resides -- the first question I'll ask him is why. Was he trying to comment on the way the people talk in this rustic part of the world? And by the way -- just where IS the village of Greenwillow? Bragged Chute, "I have been told variously that it is located in such diverse regions as Vermont, Corsica, Denmark, and the Kentucky Mountains." But she wanted it "left to the reader's imagination."

Said Festival spokesperson Judith Anderson (yes, that's her real name), "Wherever it is, it seems like it's right around here." Indeed, during the 90-minute car ride from Salt Lake City, I did see many a cow -- an animal that is featured prominently in the plot. Added Anderson, "We had an animal-trainer who said he could get us a real cow and he could teach it to kneel on demand." (That's supposed to happen in the show, too.)
Well, live theater is one thing, livestock another, and the UFOC, as it's chummily known, opted for cow and pig puppets (ones I'd like to think Julie Taymor would find as endearing as I). But that was one of the very few compromises the company made in mounting the work.

I prefer that the curtain be down when I enter a house, but I forgave UFOC as soon as I walked in and saw on the stage that famous large weeping willow of a logo. Then to hear an opera-sized orchestra make the overture sound so lush. When the Greenwillow townspeople began singing "'Twill be a day borrowed from heaven," I started thinking that it just might be.
Meanwhile, set designer Bill Forrester and director Vincent Liotta flew in above them a rough-hewn wooden oval. As each townsperson entered, he carried with him a miniature of his own home, which he then placed on the oval to make a charming representation of the town. When narrator Little Fox Jones pointed out that the town was bisected by the Meander River, the cute oval split to reveal a ribbon of royal blue. Nifty!

Narrator, you ask? Yes, the new writers added Jones -- for a while. Frankly, I assumed I was watching Gideon Briggs taking me through the town. Does Greenwillow need a narrator? Apparently not, for Holmes and Willison only put him in a minimum of scenes.

They did make a good move, though, by assigning "Summertime Love" to Amos when he comes home, so he can repledge his feelings for his wife. At least he's not afraid to say he loves her, so you like him for that.
But the next morning -- the VERY next morning -- he's walking away whistling, and younger son Micha begs him to stay. Begs. "Poppa, please don't leave, please don't leave." Leave, though, he does.

Must he? The new writers and Greenwillow would do well to keep Amos in the show for almost its entire length. Let Gideon and the kids start hoping that this time, it's going to be different, that he's going to stay. Let him help Gideon in buying that cow, what with his worldly expertise.
Right now, a subplot still has Gideon's Grandma barter for the cow with her old boyfriend. Today, that just seems like a need to have a subplot -- which musicals don't anymore.

Greenwillow sure doesn't, because its main plot has quite a bit to say to the '90s audiences on the subject of single-parents families. When Chute wrote her novel in the comparatively easy-going '50s, the idea of a woman who was patient enough to wait for her man to come home for a visit -- and never complain -- must have seemed endearingly quaint. While of course there were divorces in the '50s, there weren't as many deadbeat dads, and we didn't yet know the effects of long-term single-parenting, as we do now. A father who leaves his family can no longer be lionized as an adventurer.

So keep Amos home, and have the family get comfortably used to having him there. Then when Amos does "get the call" in the show's penultimate scene, Gideon can tell him off, and, after he still leaves, the lad can finally makes a commitment to Dorrie, to Greenwillow, and to "The Music of Home" (which really should be the title of this "new" Frank Loesser musical).

But wait. Greenwillow does also carry another contemporary message in this era when we ask ourselves how much we should let the church affect our private lives. As in the original, the town's two reverends are still on hand. One is Reverend Lapp, who's really dour. Don't expect in this musical to see Lapp dancing.

The other is newcomer Reverend Birdsong. He's new to town, cute and adorable. Both get that terrific idea for a song, in which each preaches on "The Coming of Winter." Lapp, though, urges "Repent!" while Birdsong decides "Rejoice!" They disagree on everything -- even on the pronunciation of "Ah-men" vs. "Ay-men." When Lapp insists his way is right, Birdsong waves it off with a "So be it" -- which, in case you've forgotten or never knew, is exactly what "Amen" means.

Birdsong was originally played by Celtic favorite Cecil Kellaway. He was round and squat, but now the character is played by Michael Ballam himself, who's Og-gishly fey rather than fat. He got entrance applause as a tribute for all he's done for Logan, but that was just the beginning. The audience went on to adore his wide-eyed, wide-mouthed interpretation. They especially loved his actions and reactions when Birdsong got soused on moonshine.

The actress playing Grandma? With one eyed closed like Dick Deadeye,
she distorted her mouth into a different expression after virtually every line was said to her. She offered more mugs than you'd fine in a souvenir shop. When she walked, every move was a do-si-do. I wondered if the production originally had much more scenery, but that this performer chewed it up during rehearsal. Let's not even mention her name, okay?
Everyone else was fine. Chad McAlester's Gideon Briggs sang so strongly on "Never Will I Marry" that Ballam must have feared he'd have to buy a new roof for the house. Director Liotta, though, has one annoying habit. He often has a singer finish a song and stand there during the applause -- and only after everyone has clapped his last, does he allow him to exit. Dead stage time.

Liotta could have ordered a song listing for the program, but this is an opera company unaccustomed to such a custom. Still, it sounded pretty much like the whole score to me, though Holmes and Willison were wise to save "The Music of Home" solely for the end, when Gideon decides that There's No Place Like.

Did the new authors need, though, to give to "Truly Loved" to Martha? That song really is determined to find a home in some Loesser show, isn't it? In the '60s it was in Pleasures and Palaces, in the '70s in Hans Andersen in London, and now it's in the '90s.

But give everyone credit for making Greenwillow happen, and to Ballam for the miracle he's continually pulling out there. Funny; for at the end of Greenwillow, when everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds, Reverend Birdsong looks heavenward, and mouths so meticulously that even those in the last row of the balcony could read that he was saying, "Thank you."

At the cast party, when I mentioned the moment to Ballam, he moved me in closer. Then he put his mouth near my ear and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "I put that in."

It's Ballam's thanks to God for Greenwillow, the Ellen Ecles Theatre, the Utah Festival Opera Company -- and good health.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
You can e-mail him at PFilichia@aol.com

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