One of the most eagerly anticipated productions in the U.S. this season is the new musical Randy Newman's Faust, which opened Sept. 30 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Playbill On-Line asked Chicago theatregoers to write their own reviews of the show. Here is a selection of the results.
To add yours, send it in an e-mail to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at email@example.com.
The late novelist Robertson Davies said, "Faust [Gonoud's opera version] puzzles me still; if Faust was so clever, why did he sell his soul to deflower and impregnate Marguerite, who is manifestly a nice girl but a simpleton?"
Judging from the reviews I've seen, "Randy Newman' Faust", which he says is based on Gonoud as well as Goethe, is puzzling people much as the opera did.
The consensus seems to be that there's some glorious music wrapped around a plot that does not bear close examination. As someone who's read the original and seen the opera, however, I think that Newman and Mamet have done the best they could in sewing up the holes in the drama. I'd rather have Newman's slacker Faust, who signs the contract only after a long perusal and under extreme pressure, than Gonoud's supposedly genius Doctor who signs up right away, slobbering over a vision of Marguerite.
Here also, the devil does get cheated of Faust's soul at the end, unlike the amibiguous ending of the opera. Newman's vision of Las Vegas as a substitite for Goethe's Walpurgisnacht is also right on target, and there's dozens of delicious little in-jokes for those who know the original.
Anyway, since when is the book the strong point of msucial theatre anyhow?? Even the great George S. Kaufman needed a deus ex machina (the birth of twins) to end "Of Thee I Sing".
At any rate, the performances are so terrific and convincing that you don't notice the plot problems during the show. I saw Ken Page as Jupiter in Encores' "Out of This World" last year (a truly incoherent plot, BTW) and his velvet voice and kindly face do just as well for a monotheistic Lord. His power and warmth make you feel secure and anchor the show. Although he lets loose during the gospel numbers and does a sprightly Macarena, he is the type that can be most effective just standing still and letting his benevolent gaze sweep over the sometimes frenetic action.
The major cause of said frenetic action, of course, is David Garrison's Lucifer. Agile, graceful, and clad in a tight sharkskin suit, he is always in motion, and even when he's in the background of a scene he seems to be just waiting to jump up and start some trouble. Those who know the actor only from "Married...With Children" may be surprised that this genteel, guileless-looking man could convincingly play the Prince of Darkness, but Garrison uses his boyish looks to advantage--he's just cute enough so that you feel bad for him when he tries so hard at everything and fails, as he always must, and his remorseful face when he tells the Lord that he has no feelings to hurt really tugs the heartstrings. However, he's just a little too profrane, too crude, too murderous and lecherous to feel truly sorry for. He's the only being in Creation who cannot be redeemed, and Garrison's acting makes you understand why. Whether he's flirting with the orchestra's violinist to the point of harrassment, tap-dancing like Fred Astaire's evil twin, or playfully turning people into peanuts and conjuring up elephants, he's really enjoying being so bad. So are we watching him do it--it's a magnificent performance.
The rest of the cast, especially Kurt Deutsch as the chameleonlike, stupid but mercurial Faust, Bellamy Young as the sweet but not-that-dumb Margaret, and Sherie Scott as the morally challenged Martha, were excellent, even though they had to deal with some of the clunkiest dialogue and songs. Craig Bennett and Steve Boles made a good archangelic team and Aisha DeHaas' singing was properly celestial.
Finally, I've seldom seen such good child actors. The songs vary in quality, but there weren't any I deeply disliked. "Eastertime" and "March of the Protestants" could be consolidated or "Love is in the Air" could be moved to that spot. "Bleeding All Over the Place" from the album would make a more convincing end to the Martha-Lucifer romance than "Hard Currency" (and why didn't Lucifer just fly down to Costa Rica and zap the little tramp?) "Relax, Enjoy Yourself" is not only three songs for the price of one but a brilliant philosophical discourse, and the most Newmanesque. "Gainesville" and "It Was Beautiful" were truly captivating and memorably delivered.
Finally, the reprises of "Pass on Over" for Margaret's death and "Glory Train" for Faust's were done so movingly that you actually felt the "quality of mercy" that is at once the most wonderful and sometimes (esp. for Lucifer) most inexplicable of God's aspects. Having Lucifer and the Lord duet in "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" helped the still-too-weak ending and sent the audience out on a high note. Evil had given Good a hilarious run for its money, but Good had triumphed in the end, and all was right with the world and elsewhere. Go and see "Faust". And if the plot doesn't do total justice to Goethe, well, imagine how the ghost of Victor Hugo feels about Walt Disney.
The only FAUST I'm familiar with is the Gounod's opera, and not being at all familiar with Randy Newman I approached his version with an open mind.
Probably the audience at the Goodman did too, and it was generally enthusiastic and responsive. We all knew the legend but I'm not sure we were ready for transplanting it to the campus of South Bend or to Costa Rica for a scene that had absolutely nothing to do with anything in the story. The anti-hero, Henry Faust, was nothing at all like any student Notre Dame has ever had or will have (believe me, since I have a son who graduated there) and was really a nasty bit of business whose ultimate conversion isn't particularly convincing. The actor portraying him did a fine job but it's hard to feel compassion for him.
His girlfriend, whose love saves him, is awfully bland and it's hard to feel for her too. However, the production is saved by the 2 main characters, God and Lucifer, played by the excellent Ken Page and Dave Garrison. They had just about all the best songs and production numbers, and Garrison, who must have taken lessons from Ray Walston in Damn Yankees, probably had the edge. The heavenly and hellish production numbers were great fun, and God's idiosyncrasies were continually amusing and unexpected, while Lucifer's were more familiar but still amusing.
The insertion of a Costa Rican musical number puzzled all of us; clearly Newman hasn't a clear picture of what he wants to do with this story, and frankly I think it needs a lot of work before anyone plants it on Bdwy. But I think it has distinct possibilities and would hope Newman is willing to cut out the extraneous stuff and concentrate on essentials, incl. doing something with the Henry character.
In conclusion, this was a very funny, bright and generally entertaining show with a great cast, some fine production numbers and a bunch of other stuff needing work.
From Steve Schroeder (SchroedS@cdnet.cod.edu or SPrestonS@aol.com):
Divided it stands, united it falls . . .
What's most frustrating about Randy Newman s Faust is that, for the most part, each individual production element is wonderful. Yet when these parts are put together, its lack of focus and direction creates a very frustrating evening of theatre.
Most illustrative of this is the score itself. With his surprisingly diverse and melodic songs, Newman definitely proves that he is capable of creating a first-rate musical theatre piece. However, only about one-third of the songs actually progress the action of the adapted Faustian plot. This leaves audience members entertained by the sights and sounds, but confused by their purpose. Sad but true, the highly engaging "Easter Parade" and "Costa Rica" sequences could be completely cut and, in terms of plot continuity, no one would miss them.
Equally frustrating is the combination of fantastic performers with weak book material to perform. Director Michael Grief has assembled a dream cast, led by David Garrison, whose turn on the Devil is nothing short of comedic brilliance, and Ken Page, who delivers in a soulful (if not consistently charismatic) King of Kings. Yet their performances can t hide the fact that the characters and plot are woefully underdeveloped by book writers Newman and David Mamet.
While peppered with some great comedic gags and creative incorporation of modern day pop culture, there are numerous holes, gaps, and tangents in the script that, even for musical theatre, are not quite forgivable. Additionally, it is ironic that a musical with God at its center has such a weak and unfulfilling deus ex machina.
Finally, even Michael Grief s direction is full of inconsistencies. While providing the production with some good energy, the show s staging lacks the inventiveness, punctuation, and polish of his previous effort, Rent. Faust is by no means a Rent clone, yet it could still benefit from some of the creative use of space and momentum demonstrated by its predecessor.
In its current incarnation, Randy Newman's Faust is great entertainment, but not-so-great theatre. If it is to survive beyond Chicago and not get eaten alive by New York critics and audiences alike, Newman, Mamet and Grief need to make tough decisions and provide better focus.
I saw the Sunday matinee of Randy Newman's "Faust" at the Goodman Theater in Chicago on 9-29-96. This was a preview performance with opening night scheduled for the next day. The event was made all the more enjoyable by a post-show discussion with director Michael Greif that almost 100 theater goers stayed to enjoy. He answered all questions thrown at him from the audience that ranged from comparisons to his La Jolla production of the show to character motivations and scenic choices. This discussion added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the show.
On its own merit, it was a very enjoyable afternoon of theater, although not entirely satisfying. The highlights were certainly the cast. Most notably Ken Page as the Lord whose golden voice really sold the opening numbers for each act. "Glory Train" from Act I and "How Great Our Lord" from Act II were rousing gospel numbers lead by Page and a very spirited cast of singers and dancers. Likewise, David Garrison's Lucifer was a powerfully comedic perfrmance that held the show together. These two along with several others from the La Jolla cast and a great ensemble were excellent. I enjoyed many of the songs as well.
In the end, I guess it was the book that held the show back. David Mamet collaborated on the book with Newman for this version, a change from the La Jolla version. The story was very funny and the audience seemed to be into it throughout. Although the real focus of this story is on the relationship between Lucifer and the Lord, which I think works well in this show, the other main characters are Henry Faust and his love interest Margaret. Perhaps the biggest problem is the unlikeable nature of Henry Faust's character. I realize that this was an intentional choice by Newman, but it makes it really difficult to care about his relationship with Margaret or to care if he gets to heavan or not. (In fact you probably don't think he should). While this creates good conflict for Lucifer and the Lord, it makes scenes with Henry almost too harsh at times.
Overall, I liked the show and admire what they have accomplished. I would like to see the show again and hope that it is successful. But I wonder if it will find commercial success. It doesn't quite seem like the type of thing that would go over on broadway as it is currently written,. but many of the right elements seem to be in place. I encourage people to see it for some of the music and the cast alone!
Post YOUR thoughts, impressions, observations and reviews on the show to managing editor Robert Viagas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Responses will be posted as they come in.
To see what the published critics have to say about the show, check "Published Reviews of 'Faust'" in Theatre News.
Check out the Randy Newman's Faust website at http://www.repriserec.com/RandyNewman .
We also found a website where you can download some audio clips from the show's concept album: http://desires.com/2.0b3/Music/Reviews/roundup.html .