Harps and Angels
Mark Taper Forum
The world premiere of the Taper’s Harps and Angeles, conceived by Jack Viertel, directed by the venerable Jerry Zaks, and honoring the lifetime of decade-spanning tunes composed by Randy Newman, is a slick and snappy affair, featuring Stephan Olson’s sensationally versatile set inventively complemented by dynamite projections designed by Marc I. Rosenthal and an ensemble cast that could win over Ebenezer even without the three spirits, to put it seasonally PC.
Michael McKean anchors the show as a vision of the latter-day Newman, offering songs illustrating the personal process of his own evolving (devolving?) from bushy-tailed fledgling songwriter in his early 20s—when I first knew both he and McKean during my long tenure as Talent Coordinator of the Troubadour during its now-legendary “golden” era—to someone begging for a pity-toss from a much younger partner (a vibrant introductory turn throughout from Amazonian tattooed actor-rocker Storm Large), singing about waking up with every joint screaming and having to piss sitting down when getting up during the night. As someone three years Newman’s junior, may I say here is where I most ready identified and felt closest to these angel’s harps.
But McKean also shows his own rocker roots when he dons costumer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’ glittery Nudie-style country gear and grabs his own guitar or joins the whole group for the show’s most impressive full production number, “Down in New Orleans,” featuring notable musical staging by Warren Carlyle.
Katey Sagal, for those who have never before heard her open her Merman pipes and let loose, instantly leaves Peg Bundy behind here, bringing a upmarket authority to every musical “role” she assumes, as does the dynamic Adriane Lenox, a former TicketHolder Award winner from me as the conflicted mother in Doubt as few seasons back. Both actors bring a sensational class and weight to the production, as does Matthew Saldivar, most recently seen as Luther Billis in the national tour of Bart Sher’s South Pacific at the Taper’s neighbor and CTG sister Ahmanson Theatre.
Still, for me it was the inclusion of another youthful rocker here, the Harry Potter-bi-speckled Ryder Bach, who is the breakout talent in this troupe of more veteran Angels, creating an urge in me to want a night out in the near future to see him onstage with his band Body Parts. As the incarnation of the early Newman-clone, all elbows and clumsy moves and wailing the inevitable torment of youthful angst, Bach is a delight, making me instantly think he could spend the next decade earning a decent living playing Roger in Rent and Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors in productions all over the planet.
Harps and Angels is a beautifully realized evening, especially thanks to the imagination and skill of Zaks, but it is also not without its problems. You see, Randy Newman is a true visionary of our times—a little Bukowski, a little Dave Barry—his lyrics making him, to me, one of the great musical poet laureates of the second half of the last century. But Newman has also always been a poet in search of a melody, something less evident when one hears one of his songs rather than an evening offering 32 of them.
Even with the expert help of musical director Michael Roth, orchestrations by Roth and our town’s great genius David O, and additional arrangements by Nadia DiGiallonardo, listening to an entire collection of Randy Newman songs, brilliant and wonderfully humorous chronicles of our times that they certainly are, tends to begin feeling like that annoying commercial jingle the guy in the next cubicle keeps humming incessantly all day long.
Harps and Angels, though lifting Newman to the heights of proper appreciation for his unstoppable mind and incredible insight into the human condition, also has the lingering effect of making us realize how similar and sometimes unmemorable his music may be. I won’t personally stop loving or listening to Newman after this, but I think I’ll listen to his songs one at a time.
Harps and Angels plays through Dec. 22 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.9628.2772 or online at www.centertheatregroup.org