Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, And Again, and Again …

Time and Again , the new musical at the Manhattan Theatre Club, has been adapted from Jack Finney’s popular novel by a well-meaning fellow named Jack Viertel, and we wish him a speedy recovery. Mr. Viertel used to be a drama critic in Los Angeles, but we don’t hold that against him. He is clearly trying to prove that there’s life after death. He’s also the creative director of Jujamcyn Theatres, and we certainly don’t hold that against him either. No, Time and Again is to blame. Time and Again must take the rap.

If you saw it, you would feel the same way as me and Elizabeth, who knows the original novel well and came along to advise me on the show. She’s cool and lovely, by the way, and will soon be breaking some guy’s heart, probably Jack Viertel’s.

She’s 15 and had recently studied Jack Finney’s 1970 time-travel novel in school. “What’s the biggest challenge for the musical version?” I asked her before we excitedly took our seats. “It has to be how they re-create the past,” she said. “You could do it easily in a movie, but how are they going to do it really well in a theater?”

The artistic challenge proved even more formidable. City Center Stage II, where Time and Again has been produced, is an intimate black box. The director, Susan H. Schulman, and her creative team couldn’t rely then on lavish sets or stage technology to create New York in the 1880’s. They had to conjure it out of thin air. In fact, they were in the most thrilling and challenging theatrical place of all–the empty space where master magicians show us they hide nothing up their sleeves, and the power of the imagination rules.

“You know what my term for the theater for the future would be?” Brecht asked Peter Brook shortly before he died. “I would call it a Theatre of Naïveté.”

The musical version of Time and Again basically retells the story of the adventures of a commercial artist, Si Morley (Lewis Cleale), who’s sent miraculously back in time to experience the wonder of the past and falls in love with Julia Charbonneau, who’s betrothed to an evil cad and played by the delightful Laura Benanti. But from the outset, I’m afraid the charming Brigadoon -ish possibilities of the piece were sunk by Walter Edgar Kennon’s repetitively limp score and lyrics: “Who are you anyway / That I should like you so / Though we met only a few hours ago?”

That we should be turned off so, though we heard the song only a moment ago, is a musical no-no. It’s a thin, bloodless score (performed on two pianos) without a memorable song. The choices are sometimes peculiar. When our romantic hero is first smitten with Ms. Charbonneau, we would expect something wonderful–yes? He’s in love! His heart has stopped! And what do we get? A song about death entitled “She Dies.” The show and the romance have scarcely begun, and he’s singing about the girl being dead.

It was too soon to mourn. Presumably to jolly things along a bit, book writer Jack Viertel has added a new subplot about a 19th-century troupe of plucky entertainers trying to make it in showbiz. Haven’t we seen that plucky troupe before? And doesn’t it take us further and further away from the original novel? But then, the best we can hope for is a blustery sense of period. “‘Tis a day you will rue!” goes the dialogue from the Handy Showbiz Guide to Victorianspeak. “What gives you the temerity !” “How dare you give this woman a gift on such scant provocation!” “You who have known me only a scant 14 hours!”

Zounds! Even the choreography was scant. But let’s not rue the day. A failure of the imagination goes to the heart of what went badly wrong here. Susan H. Schulman isn’t an innovator, but a solid director of such middle-of-the-road fare as Fiddler on the Roof , The Secret Garden and The Sound of Music . The uninspired, even deadening staging of Time and Again at the nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club resembles nothing more than a low-budget try-out for some Broadway production of the future. A truly imaginative sense of play and wonder aren’t essential for the mediocre Broadway of Seussical , Jane Eyre and The Full Monty . But the design of Time and Again is impoverished, and sad to say, not a single scene struck us with the longed-for, necessary sense of enchantment–beautiful, naïve and inevitable.

My goodness! We live in a movie age in which allegedly cynical audiences are spellbound by Chinese warriors battling each other on swaying tree tops! A theater of the imagination can do that, too–provided we have the magicians. But my young friend and adviser, Elizabeth, is gentler about these things than I, though there’s no denying that our big night out at the theater had been a disappointment. She knew the musical hadn’t worked. “Apart from everything else,” she said as we headed home, “we never sensed the past.”

Then she wondered, with the innocence of babes, “Why do they still do musicals?”

Now there’s a question! I told her the first great musical I ever saw was West Side Story . I was her age. “Mine was Guys and Dolls ,” she said, smiling at the memory.

That’s why they still do musicals.

And, at heart, perhaps it’s all about nostalgia. The moment Rob Fisher and the trusty Coffee Club Orchestra strike up the overture at the Encores! series of American musicals in concert is to know that all is impossibly right with the escapist world. Even the overture itself–eternal promise of all that’s swell, elegant, witty and grand–has become as old-fashioned as a great love song. But we love these vintage musicals that are revived for a handful of performances, as if we too were time-traveling back to a golden age.

Our new best friend, Jack Viertel, is also the new artistic director for Encores! , and A Connecticut Yankee , Rodgers and Hart’s lunatic romantic comedy inspired by the Mark Twain novel, opened the new season. The show was first staged on Broadway in 1927 (and revised in 1943), and we could say that it’s as gloriously silly as ever. So we shall. The loose, confident swagger of dopiness in Connecticut Yankee ‘s tale, about a young man from Hartford who wakes up in the medieval England of Camelot after being hit over the head with a champagne bottle, is to be taken with a pinch of malt.

The musty vaudevillian longueurs were lightened by an irresistible line or two. “Meet you at the moat!” “Tell thou that to the Marines!” Unfortunately, the longueurs were longer than we anticipated. The tempo of the show should have fizzed along, but the director, Susan H. Schulman (of Time and Again ), allowed it to droop. Caution is usually–and happily–thrown to the wind in the Encores! series, and we’re always glad. New musicals are invariably over-rehearsed and over-worried. ( Time and Again was first workshopped in 1993.) It’s as if the modern musical clamps spontaneity. As Mr. Brantley of The Times put it reluctantly about the faults of the Connecticut Yankee production: “Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a miracle every time, but Encores! is about as close to Lourdes as we come in the musical theater these days.”

There were uncharacteristic dips in some of the dutiful performances, in the bewilderingly clunky choreography, in sparks that didn’t quite ignite. The rent-boy look for male members of the chorus is not swellegant . But there were good things, too. Christine Ebersole’s much-married Morgan Le Fay–”Always the bride, never the bridesmaid”–was a pleasure, and Ms. Ebersole brought the house down with that battle hymn to murdering your husband, “To Keep My Love Alive.” Rob Fisher and the Coffee Club Orchestra were in top form; Donald Walker’s 1943 orchestrations of the Rodgers score were plain terrific. And then there were those irresistible last lyrics of Lorenz Hart. They were his last because this tragic man with a lovely soul died five days after the opening night of A Connecticut Yankee .

Hart was the mordant genius who could rhyme ‘patricide’ with ‘mattress-ide!’ He wrote lyrics to swoon to:

I took one look at you

That’s all I meant to do

And then my heart stood still.

There you go! And who in their right, nostalgic mind wouldn’t go there, too? Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, And Again, and Again …