Feesh, Feesh, Oh Feeshy Feesh! Captains Courageous Lost at Sea

We are always grateful to be given lessons in how to fish for cod. You

never know . For instance, you might be strolling down Madison Avenue

on a Saturday afternoon and find yourself thinking: “I would love to

have a nice piece of fresh cod right now. It will make a lovely lunch with

boiled potatoes and garden peas. Easy on the butter.”

And this is the thing: If, by chance, you have seen Captains

Courageous , the new fishing musical at the Manhattan Theater Club, you

will learn how to fish for the cod yourself in the sea. Try not to jerk the

fishing line in your excitement at a bite. You will lose the fish. It

happens all the time. It happens to the best.

Before you can fish for cod, however, it is necessary to locate the cod.

The same goes for sardines. As Treat Williams, who plays the wise, somewhat

simple-minded Portuguese fisherman Manuel, puts it in Captains

Courageous : “Dee feesh have meeting down below.”

Manuel eez dee fahder Harvey never had. I don’t know about his

mudder. Harvey, he lost his own fahder when he fell off an ocean liner in

to dee turbulent sea. Kindly Manuel, his savior, he even sing to dee feesh

thus: “Hey leetle feesh–are you passing by?/ So cold and dark in

the sea/ Come up and see the sunshine/ And pass some time with me.”

Harvey is Harvey Ellesworth Cheyne, a horribly rich teenage brat played

by Brandon Espinoza, who was in Big . Captains Courageous , the

musical, is based on Captains Courageous , the novel, written by

Rudyard Kipling in 1897. It was also, quite famously, a 1937 movie with

Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew. And now it’s a musical.

It shouldn’t have been. The unacceptably snotty Harvey falls into

the sea to be rescued by the Portuguese Manuel and his salty shipmates on a

fishing trawler. Hence dee feeshing lessons. But as played by young

Espinoza, who I guess is about 14, Harvey is such a nauseating little punk

that anyone would be forgiven for yelling: “Chuck him back

immediately!”

Why, one of the salty dogs on board even remarks: “That’s the

orneriest kid I ever seen.” Orneriest? “Twenty years I been a

feesherman,” the usually sweet-tempered Manuel says about Harvey.

“First time I catch a feesh like you .”

Meanwhile, the crew is happily singing lusty sea chanteys about home,

true love and the lonely business of the fishing industry. What’s a

gnarled old fisherman to do when he leaves a good woman for a ship with the

wind in her sails? He pines, plays the squeezebox, and searches for the

meaning of it all.

“A song of true love is as deep as can be/ But never as deep as the

song of the sea.” Aye, that’s true! Look lively, lads! “Oh

mama, don’t you weep for me/ I’m only sailing out to sea

…”

The scurvy dogs aboard this Good Ship Lollipop keep everything nice and

shipshape, as they sing the chanteys and cuss the ornery Harvey, whose

unending tantrums would sink a battleship. They hoist a lot of rigging.

They fish or cut bait. They tie extremely intricate knots–not just a

granny knot, but what looked to my weathered, seafaring eyes like a

three-looped trefoil knot. They rush to and fro, hither and thither, fore

and aft, tying the ropes to cleats, making pretty cat’s-cradle

patterns to generic sea music.

They do all this and manfully more in what becomes an intense nautical

teach-in for us all. They would climb the jib, if there was one.

“Stand tall, boys!” goes the captain’s gruff command. And

the all-male cast of troupers certainly do.

I was fascinated to learn from the Playbill that the

near-military musical staging is by Jerry Mitchell, who is probably best

known for conceiving and staging eight versions of Broadway Bares ,

an evening of burlesque featuring 130 of Broadway’s sexiest dancers,

which “will be reinvented by him for an unlimited run at a major

showroom in Las Vegas next year.”

In his rite of passage to becoming a caring responsible young man,

Harvey also learns from Manuel how to carry slops, swab down decks, spit

into dee vind like real fishermen, and generally make himself an anonymous,

beaten team player. “Anyone touch that kid, I tear him apart!”

warns the protective Manuel, who grows more and more attached to Harvey as

the cod begin to bite.

So Captains Courageous blows. There are two thrilling subplots

that shouldn’t pass unnoticed. The big one is about a fierce fishing

competition between Manuel and an anti-Harvey sailor who believes the kid

is a jinx. “When the sea wants life,” he warns darkly in song,

“the sea takes life.” Whoever wins the fishing

competition gets Manuel’s beloved squeezebox, which his

fahder left to him, and his fahder left to him.

I won’t give away the result. In fact, Manuel unexpectedly loses

the fish-off, in addition to, of course, his squeezebox, because Harvey

cheated on his behalf. But that’s just another lesson for bratty

Harvey to learn on his long road to manhood: Never get caught cheating.

The second subplot also involves a competition. This time it’s

between old-fashioned and modern shipping technology. Our heroes have a

longstanding rivalry with the crew of a better-equipped fishing boat. They

therefore compete to find out who can catch the most feeshes.

I won’t give away this result, either. I’ll give a hint.

“Stand tall, boys!” I see you’ve guessed . Our heroes

win the super-grand fish-off! And who’s that helping them? Who’s

that tying three-looped trefoil knots with the best of them? Who’s

that who makes ‘em stand even taller? It’s Harvey! The boy

helps them. Et voilà! A sailor is born.

Naturally, there’s a storm sequence, leading, I believe, to the

partial collapse of the mizzen-top gallant sail. “Stay law in dee

bawt” (“Stay low in the boat”), Manuel had advised. But in

bravely trying to save the damaged sail, Manuel is tragically swept

overboard to sleep with dee feeshes and his late fahder, who was also a

feesherman.

“I’m all right, leetle feesh,” Manuel, he say to the

stricken Harvey in his last drowning words. “I go now and I feesh with

my fahder.”

And so, Harvey Ellesworth Cheyne comes to learn that all

the wealth in the world is but a bag of shells compared to an honest plate

of cod.

Captains Courageous isn’t the best night out we could have.

Who is it for? I can’t, for the life of me, tell you. But let’s

say that the music by Frederick Freyer and the book and lyrics by Patrick

Cook were better, and that this minor moral fable of the sea was fresh and

enchanting. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that everything

about Captains Courageous is delightful. Why do I believe, then,

that Lynne Meadow’s production at the Manhattan Theater Club still

would not work?

It’s in the wrong theater.

The stage is too low. It’s remarkably low, and wide. It encourages

the earthbound, not the skyward.

It’s the last place–I would have thought–to stage a show

that takes place on a ship. The design solution here is to stage the action

on a wooden platform that revolves dizzyingly. But it’s no solution at

all. The ship itself, the sky and ocean, the air we breathe–the very

raison d’être of the entire enterprise–are never

imaginatively evoked. The wooden platform resembles an oversize listing

raft. It is dead to the eye. The Manhattan Theater Club production of

Captains Courageous is unable to soar, supposing it ever could.