Question for the catastrophic new Broadway resuscitation of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: To quote the title of a show-stopping song that is currently being massacred nightly at the St. James Theatre, “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”
Answer: Just about everything.
For starters, you don’t have Barbara Harris, who skyrocketed to major stardom in the original 1965 production. That’s a given. We know that going in. She was one of the very few genuinely electrifying stars I have seen in my lifetime who walked onto the stage, opened her mouth and drove the audience to its feet with a screaming ovation on her opening number. It was a vibrant, buoyant song by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane called “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” and although it is still the opening number of this disastrously ill-advised new production, nobody screams or applauds above a polite hey-ho, what’s next? This is because not only is Barbara Harris not around as a flaky, adorable kook named Daisy Gamble, who goes to a shrink to stop smoking and discovers, under hypnosis, she lived another life as a glamorous courtesan in 18th-century London (much confusion ensued, accompanied by a multitude of fabulous songs), but because Daisy is no longer on the scene, either. She is now a flamboyantly limp-wristed, swivel-hipped cretin with a swirling navel named David. Half of the songs are missing, too. What’s left you wouldn’t wish on the hit-and-run driver who ran over your favorite cocker spaniel. This is not a revival, or even a deluded revisionist rethink. It’s more like a disembowelment.
Nothing about this fiasco makes any sense, including the update from 1965 to 1974. The psychiatrist is now played by crooner Harry Connick Jr., an agreeable stage presence (remember The Pajama Game) so criminally wasted that all he does is stand around taking notes while David, who is having trouble committing to his lover, Warren (the word “partner” in 1974 was reserved for lawyers who hung out their shingles to lure lawsuits), shows his belly button and prisses about in bell bottoms on psychedelic sets so ugly they look like the eye charts in an optometrist’s office. Mr. Connick discovers, when he puts David to sleep, that he is still a reincarnation—this time of a World War II jazz singer named Melinda who died in a plane crash on her way to her first USO tour. The grieving, recently widowed analyst, more frustrated than his patients and still grieving over the death of his late wife, falls in love with the jazz singer in a case that changes his views on life, death, psychic phenomena and big band music. He keeps increasing his appointments with David, hoping to see Melinda, but the hapless David thinks he wants to see him. All of which leads to insertions of extraneous songs that bear no relation to the revised book, including a terrible dirge called “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows” originally sung by Jack Nicholson in the disappointing Barbra Streisand movie version and then deleted for obvious reasons. Melinda is played by the phenomenally talented Jessie Mueller. She and her swinging, syncopated version of “Every Night at Seven” is the best thing in the show, and it’s not even a song from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. It’s a Fred Astaire song from the MGM musical Royal Wedding interpolated to bring the snoozing audience back to life. The worst thing in the show is David Turner, a grinning, charisma-challenged, gay Howdy Doody hopping onto fire-engine-red sofas in skin-tight retro costumes of fuchsia and mustard who has never heard of what Kay Thompson used to call “bazazz.” Every time Mr. Connick tries to kiss Melinda, Ms. Mueller steps back, Mr. Turner puckers his lips and moves in for the clinch, and Mr. Connick looks stricken as the lights go out. I’ve never seen a star with marquee value this miserable on a Broadway stage. Under green and purple gels that turn the ugliest sets I’ve ever seen (by Christine Jones) from teal blue and pomegranate to orange popsicle and raspberry, he looks like he’s fighting an attack of acid reflux.
In an age when voicing even the mildest reservation about a gay theme, action or intention is misinterpreted as homophobic, it’s not easy to tell you how headache-inducing this all is. The labored gay concept, “reconceived and directed” by Michael Mayer, and the “new book,” by Peter Parnell, with its cheap jokes about the TV show Bewitched, Truman Capote, Funny Girl and other gay icons, are among the crappiest ideas in a decade. This mess is happening with the approval of Alan Jay Lerner’s daughter and Burton Lane’s widow, Lynn, a hip and sophisticated lady with great taste who definitely knows better. Whatever were they thinking? The piddling amount of money generated from a show that was just lying in a drawer begging for an overhaul is not worth trashing the reputation of a show I always loved. There is no way they can fix it. It is already headed for the slag pit.
And so we have a dismal flop that fails on every level and invites its own pans. When poor Ms. Mueller sings another Fred Astaire movie song, “You’re All the World to Me,” she’s strapped into a violent purple creation from a bad LSD trip. Lucky Mr. Connick wears only horn-rim glasses and a conservative blue suit, which gives him the countenance of an onlooker keeping a safe distance from the rest of the cast, amateurishly choreographed by Joann Hunter like spastic puppets. But the show is a lethal career move. If he wants to sing classics from the Great American Songbook like “Too Late Now” and the title song, why doesn’t he just record a new CD? They’ve sucked the charm out of a melodic score and left him with nothing to replace it. It might have seemed like a viable idea on paper, but it vaporizes before the first act ends, and when the star opens Act II with the line “It gets worse,” the audience response backfires like a can of beans.
The Eighth Avenue subway runs under the floor of the St. James Theatre, but the rumble you hear is not the A train. It’s the sound of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane turning over in their graves.