Windbag Shaw Waxes On; Young Sondheim Makes Nice

Now, you might not entirely agree with my view that George Bernard Shaw is an old windbag, but surely he was never young. The mythic image of the man is of a pixilated guru stroking his long gray beard in sunny, bemused mischief.

G.B.S. was born old, wise from the cradle, as it were. He was never modest, believing himself to be a genius, and many have believed him. But even his early comedy Arms and the Man , revived by the Roundabout Theater Company, strikes me as the posturing of a prematurely worldly dramatist of exhausting frivolity. The antiwar drama in the guise of social comedy is Shaw’s way of reducing mighty ideas to his brand of middlebrow silliness. Hence the importance of chocolate in Arms and the Man or of Shavian wit.

Captain Bluntschli–a comic name for a comic kind of guy–is a Swiss officer in the Serbian army during the Balkan wars who loves chocolate. I expect it’s Lindt. Shaw’s jokes about the Balkans lose their charm today, incidentally. A flighty line such as, “You do not feel our national animosities as we do. We still hate the Serbs,” casts a chill over the comic timing. But let it pass. The heavy-breathing Bluntschli, fleeing some Ruritanian army or other, bursts into the bedchamber of an impressionably young Bulgarian lady named Raina. Romance is in the smoke-filled air from the start, particularly when the ravenously hungry captain feasts off her chocolate bonbons.

It turns out that Bluntschli carries chocolate into battle. “What use are cartridges?” he muses. “I always carry chocolate instead.” He must have eaten it on the battlefield, thus disarming himself. The smitten Raina–daughter of Major Petkoff and engaged to Major Sergius Saranoff, an oaf–christens Bluntschli her chocolate-cream soldier. And so Shaw’s whimsical satire about the nature of war, courage, class and romantic love begins, and never seems to end, I regret to say.

From where I sit, on my high horse, it’s difficult to see the intended profundity within the ever-popular Arms and the Man , though Shaw boasted about its heartbreaking depths beneath the light comedy. He’s the only dramatist to have critiqued his own plays, lest there be any misunderstanding about their brilliance. (He was a fine drama critic, too.) But even if my view of Arms and the Man is jaundiced, and it certainly looks that way, this terribly misguided production directed by Roger Rees does Shaw no favors at all.

Arms and the Man famously became Oscar Straus’ operetta The Chocolate Soldier , and Mr. Rees’ most serious blunder is to direct the play as if it were an operetta. And a mannered, unjolly, Victorian-touring-company version of one to boot. Mr. Rees is well known as an actor, of course (though not for his comedy). As a director, he has a ways to go. In broadening the piece to the breaking point of boisterous caricature, he deadens its comedy and bypasses its seriousness.

This is also the most shouted production I can recall, as if Mr. Rees believes that loud is comedy (and quiet is therefore tragedy). Nor is a trill shrill. The shouting and shrieking give new meaning to the theater adage: “Speak up and don’t bump into the furniture.” Little wonder the wheezing hearing aid of the poor gentleman seated next to me went on the fritz. It was suffering from serious decibel overload. We all were.

As an actor, Mr. Rees has been known to lapse into a twitchy, quivering earnestness, and so it is with much of the overacting here. Let me not name the cast one by one, like ducks in a row. They all speak with exaggerated British accents–Mr. Rees is British–except for the accomplished Henry Czerny’s Swiss captain, who’s Canadian. No one reveals an innate flair for light comedy, I’m afraid. They have been misdirected, and so has old G.B.S.

Sondheim the Ingenue

The principal interest of Saturday Night , the 1955 musical at the Second Stage Theater, is in Stephen Sondheim before he became Stephen Sondheim. My hopes were higher than academe going in. There’s always pleasure and excitement in a rediscovered musical gem, and Saturday Night has been directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, the gifted choreographer of Kiss Me, Kate and the artistic director of the Encores! musical concert series at City Center. If anyone can breathe new and witty life into a long-forgotten musical and send us home happy, Ms. Marshall sure can.

But yet … (or, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra warns the messenger who brings bad news: “I do not like but yet .”) Ms. Marshall has only partially succeeded in rescuing Saturday Night from the shadows. It was Mr. Sondheim’s first complete score and lyrics for a Broadway show. He was then in his mid-20′s and clearly destined for bigger things. But the wacky musical comedy about a group of middle-class kids from Brooklyn coming of age, with a book by Julius J. Epstein of Casablanca , was never produced. The score became Mr. Sondheim’s calling card. He played it for Leonard Bernstein, who invited him to write the lyrics for West Side Story .

The new production is therefore Saturday Night ‘s New York premiere after a 45-year delay. It has quite recently received two college productions in London and Chicago, but that’s all. We can see why it hasn’t been risked here before. Even by madcap musical-comedy standards, its book is too dopey to be believed. It must have failed to ignite in its day. The book is clumsy and dated–and not too witty–and Ms. Marshall had a daunting task in trying to save the unfixable.

She has played Saturday Night straight instead–a move that’s full of integrity in resisting the easier option of camp. She is charmingly faithful to the show’s ace–its score–by treating the young Sondheim with deft, understated refinement. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations and Rob Fisher’s musical direction are unshowily, modestly first-rate. But the tone of sweet melodic restraint lacks the kind of musical comedy wallop that makes pulses race and keeps the stage intoxicatingly hot. Ms. Marshall even ropes in her own choreography. Again, I wish so much that she had freed Derek McLane’s set of its confining, cramped steps and danced .

It’s as if everyone–including the young, fresh-faced cast–is on best behavior. All is therefore quite pleasant and sometimes quite tepid. But the evening cannot soar. And Mr. Sondheim’s precocious score? The boy had class, there can be no doubt. And, after all, Bernstein spotted it. A certain Sondheimian wistfulness is already there in the making. “If it’s Saturday night/ And you are single/ You sit with a paper and fight/ The urge to mingle …”

His talent for pastiche, verbal polish and word games are confidently revealed in the crooner’s “Love’s a Bond.” “When put to the test, I like to invest, but I won’t be a/ Great financier …” or there’s the innocent fun of the faux lady-killer in “Exhibit A” (marvelously performed by Christopher Fitzgerald): “Every little pillow has its use/ Take it from a connoissoor/ I’m the boy who coined the word ‘seduce’/ Not a lousy amachoor.” But the young Sondheim was still rooted in the traditional romance of musical comedy: “So many people in the world/ Don’t know what they’ve missed/ They’d never believe/ Such joy could exist!”

“Connoissoors” of the hallowed Sondheim oeuvre will appreciate Saturday Night best, and that the existential poet of urban angst belonged to the alienated future.