ON THE SCENE: Randy Newman is a Sly Devil in Encores! One-Night-Only Faust

Encores! Off Center featured a one-night-only concert presentation of Randy Newman's Faust July 1 as part of its summer lineup. Playbill.com was there.

Randy Newman
Randy Newman (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Randy Newman's Faust — which hit a dead end following mid-1990s tryouts in San Diego and Chicago — was revamped and somewhat modernized for a one-night-only concert performance as part of the City Center Encores! Off-Center series. Playing the devil Lucifer — "Luci," as they call him — was Randy Newman himself.

The Oscar/Emmy/Grammy-winning songwriter entered (the stage was simply set with platforms for the twelve musicians and stool-seating for the fifteen-person choir, plus a cloudbank that flew in and out) dressed in black with a grand cape (lined in bright red) and a pair of red horns. Newman sat at the piano and sang, narrated and played his way through the evening. He has a grand presence; gruff, blustering and cuddly, and he proceeds to charm his way through two acts in two hours.

The plot is borrowed from Goethe. The Devil (Newman) makes a pact with the Lord ( Isaiah Johnson), struggling over the soul of Notre Dame student Henry Faust ( Tony Vincent). Faust is an angry young rocker, with little interest in the bargain or, seemingly, anything. The Lord — with the participation of not-so-heavenly Angel Rick ( Michael Cerveris) — entices Faust with musical comedy heroine-type Margaret ( Laura Osnes). Margaret brings along a musical comedy-type friend Martha (Vonda Shepard), who suddenly steps from the crowd in the second act with two surefire show-stoppers of the sort you might expect Sherie Rene Scott to sing.

A quick Internet search reveals that Scott did, indeed, play the role in the two tryouts; Faust was played by her husband Kurt Deutsch. (The two later married and founded the invaluable Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight labels, responsible for numerous cast recordings.) Michael Greif's productions at the La Jolla Playhouse (Sept. 1995) and the Goodman Theatre (Sept. 1996) — with his landmark production of Rent falling in between — starred David Garrison as the Devil and Ken Page as the Lord. Simultaneously with the initial production, Newman released a concept album version of the score, featuring a star-studded cast (including James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Newman as The Devil.)

Laura Osnes and Tony Vincent
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

The songs — last night, and two decades ago — are the strongest part of the affair. At two points, a character refers to the score (and Newman's work in general) as "stupid old shuffle songs, always the same." They are old shuffle songs, yes, and at some point in the two-dozen-song evening perhaps a bit repetitive; but they are charmingly melodic and irrepressibly rambunctious, and make a strong case for Newman as a potential musical theatre composer. (They are also well orchestrated by Michael Roth, who was at the second piano just upstage of Newman.) It is the non-shuffle songs, in fact, that are less successful.

The weakness of the evening is the book — seemingly cut way down for Encores! — and the overall dramatic form of the piece. This was apparently the case in the two regional productions, and the reason  Faust was unable to move further. For the Goodman, the producers brought in no less than David Mamet to collaborate with Newman, but to no avail. (At Encores!, there was no book credit.) Director Thomas Kail ( In the Heights) provided a semblance of order, although what the piece needed was a clarity of thought. A major asset was the presence of the Broadway Inspirational Voices — led by Michael McElroy — who punctuated the work with style and attitude. Chris Fenwick, the Off-Center music director, conducted.

Newman was altogether delightful, if at times unintelligible. (He had a lot to do, acting and singing the leading role while narrating the whole thing. And playing the piano throughout, as well.) Johnson ( Peter and the Starcatcher) was strong and charismatic as Lord, and Osnes ( Cinderella) gave yet another good performance as the ill-fated Margaret. Cerveris ( Sweeney Todd) had relatively little to do, while Vincent ( American Idiot) was stuck in a poorly-written role. Indie-pop singer/songwriter Shepard was the find of the evening, at least for theatre audiences unfamiliar with her five years of acting and singing on Ally McBeal. Her solo "Life Has Been Good to Me" and her duet with Newman, "Feels Like Home" were among the peaks of the evening.