STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Richard Adler's 'New' Musical

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Richard Adler's 'New' Musical Every now and then, I'll be out with my stagestruck friends, and someone'll say, "Which composer do you most admire for writing a completely different score, one you would have never predicted that he or she could have written?"
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Every now and then, I'll be out with my stagestruck friends, and someone'll say, "Which composer do you most admire for writing a completely different score, one you would have never predicted that he or she could have written?"

Someone will mention Jerry Herman's post-Dolly-and Mame Dear World. I see the point. Ditto when someone adds Stephen Schwartz's post-Godspell-and- Pippin Baker's Wife. But for my money, you can't do better than Richard Adler's West African-flavored score for Kwamina.

In the mid-1950s, Adler and collaborator Jerry Ross had Pajama Game and Damn Yankees open within -- get this -- 357 days of each other. "Hey, There," "Hernando's Hideaway," and "Steam Heat" were pop hits from the first; "Heart," "Whatever Lola Wants," and "Two Lost Souls" from the second. Each of them was a song any human being could have sung for you by November, 1955, when Ross suddenly died of bronchial problems at the age of 29.

It would be six years before Adler brought his first solo music-and lyrics score to Broadway -- Kwamina, starring his wife, Sally Ann Howes, for whom he wrote the show. The show produced no hits, closed in a month, and Adler had to endure the further pain of his wife's taking up with her leading man.

But Adler's not the type to give up. Now 76, he's done a new version of Kwamina, which played a week at the new Metro Music Theatre in Columbus, OH. Producing director Robert Tolan had always been a fan of the score, and called Adler out of the blue and ask if he'd like to do it. "Only with a new book," said Adler, never having cottoned to Robert Alan Aurthur's original.

Adler looked no further than his wife, Susan A. Ivory, to provide his new libretto. (Seems that whenever Adler does Kwamina, he does it with a wife.) Ivory, diminutive and pert, had done "some writing," but never the book for a musical. "But," she reports, "I thought I could come up with something that would serve the score." Indeed she has, on a score well worth serving. You wouldn't think it could possibly have originated with the man who'd written those razzmatazz, Tin-Pan-Alley-meets Broadway show tunes. Long before Ladysmith Black Mambazo, here was a similar sound. Adler managed black to meet The Great White Way.

(I'm not the only one who feels this way. Adler got a Tony nomination for Kwamina, and while he lost the race to Richard Rodgers' No Strings, he was remembered, unlike the composer lyricists of such longer-running shows as Carnival, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, Subways Are for Sleeping, Sail Away, The Gay Life, The Happiest Girl in the World, Kean, and All-American.)

Adler and Ivory say the book is "80% different." If you checked out the synopses on the 1961 LP and 1993 CD, you wouldn't think so -- at first. It's the second act where she's delivered a more well-plotted, theatrical, and less tragic script.

It's now 1955 (instead of "at the present time"), but we're still in a West African village. Tribal chief Nana Mwalla, though gravely ill, is looking forward to the homecoming of his son Kwamina (which means "Born on Sunday.") Kwamina has been away 10 years, during which time he went to England's best medical school.

Before he arrives, though, Nana has an attack. Medicine man Obitsebi passes his wand over him. But also on the scene is Eve, a white doctor, and native South African. As he tends to Nana with his wand, she uses her medicine. The chief recovers.

Then Eve turns to Obitsebi, and mentions how they both pulled him through.

That's Ivory's, and that's first-rate. That one line makes us like her. Any woman who's that diplomatic, respectful, and caring is someone we can root for.

Ivory, though, hasn't yet found the way to make us feel for Kwamina, who comes home, wants to be called "Peter," wears Burberry suits, and -- worst of all -- doesn't respect Obitsebi anymore. He's arrogant to Eve, too, at least for a while, until the inevitable love story kicks in (along with a subplot love story).

But Ivory knew it wouldn't be easy. She's busy working to show Kwamina's radiant optimism and ambition to change his country for the better. She's experimenting with toning down his attitude when things don't go his way.

While listening to criticism and advice, Ivory showed a pro's instinct. She knows "musicals aren't written, they're rewritten," that she has miles to go before she sleeps, and that Metro Music is merely a first stop in what could be a lengthy but satisfying road.

The Columbus theater didn't let them down. Tolan, who only started the company last year, took on a load when he chose Kwamina for his third show. "The original orchestrations are completely lost," he says, "so I had to have new ones made." Bob Johnston, the composer of the too briefly-seen Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi, was enlisted with his frequent partner, Tom Leighton, and did a splendid job for the seven member orchestra.

Adler added to their task by writing five new songs. The consolation, though, was that all of them worked, especially "Barbarians," in which Obitsebi expressed his astonishment at the impracticality of English manners and customs.

Aside from the two Equity import leads, everyone else in the 30 (!) member cast was a Columbus citizen with a day-job. You wouldn't have known it. Good Lord, what talent they grow out there! Ebony Clemmons got the biggest laughs of the night with "One Wife," in which she and the other native women opine that polygamy is the way to go, because there'd be too much responsibility for just one wife. Young Matthew Hancock was terrific as Obitsebi's protege, who, when passed the torch, frankly and fearfully admitted to Kwamina he was too young to bear such responsibility.

Of the imports, Bobby Daye did well with Kwamina, and would have done better if he'd had more of a large-but-kind character. But Colleen Fitzpatrick had the goods, and delivered one of the year's best female musical performances. (Yes, I have seen Side Show.)

"Doing it here sure beats having a reading," says Adler with a bright smile. But he often wears a bright smile. He's a cancer survivor who's not only augmenting Kwamina's score, but is also composing a ballet of The House of Bernarda Alba that's scheduled for a Florida premiere.

But then again, his mentor was George Abbott, who lived and worked until 107. Let's hope for just as much for Adler and Ivory. (VERY nice ring to that, no?)

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