Monday, December 10, 2012

Workshop Production of New/Old 'Kennedy' Musical Doesn't Quite Feel Like 'Camelot'

Theater Commentary (but not a full review)

A Musical Memoir
Book, Music and Lyrics by Allan Jay Friedman and Leslie Bricusse
Athenaeum Theatre, Chicago
Workshop run ended

Over the weekend, I saw a staged workshop production of a musical called Kennedy, as in President John F. According to a Tribune article by Chris Jones, the show’s producers and its creators—Leslie Bricusse and Allen Jay Friedman—are looking to bring the show to Broadway to commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, preceded by a full-scale Chicago production.

Although at this point, Kennedy supposedly consists of a new title, several new songs and a heavily revamped book, it is not an entirely brand new musical, but rather the descendent of One Shining Moment, which ran only in Chicago in 1983. With a cast that included Kevin Anderson, Megan Mullally and Alan Ruck, that show ran for 9 months at the old Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place, but according to Jones’ article, the Tribune theater critic at the time, Richard Christensen, was far from completely enthralled, writing that "One Shining Moment is a series of very smart and attractive bits surrounding what seems to me to be a basically stupid and repugnant idea."

Last week’s piece by Jones was the first I’d ever heard of One Shining Moment or the updated Kennedy workshop production, for which Proscenium Productions offered free tickets to five performances at the Athenaeum Theatre. I was appreciative and excited by the chance to see a Broadway-targeted musical in a developmental stage, and did so with no awareness of what remained from the show’s earlier incarnation.

Given that Kennedy was promoted as a workshop and presented for free, and that the workshop run has now ended, I don’t feel it proper to rate or fully review the show. Anything I say below should not be taken as a recommendation to see or avoid the show, which is clearly still a work in progress.

But while even this might be inappropriate if I were an actual theater critic and not just an idiot with a blog, I mean it constructively to say that IMHO, Kennedy needs a good bit of work if it is to succeed—at least critically—on Broadway or even just again in Chicago.

This isn't to say that it was bad, and with scenery added—aside from a collection of photographs employed for the workshop—the show could make for a passable night of entertainment in tribute to the 35th President of the United States. But with deference to the impressive pedigrees of Bricusse and Friedman, Kennedy just didn’t seem particularly special.

Even with excellent vocal performances from Branden James Smith as JFK and Casi Maggio as Jackie, overall the whole affair just felt somewhat flat, rather than especially inspired.

I won’t pick at specific songs or storyline choices, other than to say that I don’t think the assassination really needed to be acted out, but my impression is that a lot more imagination needs to go into the musical numbers and the way the biographical events unfolded on-stage. As it stands, the choices mostly seem a bit too obvious.

I can imagine the Kennedy story being a tricky one to stage, and it seems that Christensen had a real problem with the tone that One Shining Moment employed in being both “breezy and serious.” This version is supposedly a good bit more serious, but in making reference to JFK’s megalomaniacal father and the President’s incessant womanizing, it isn’t fully a fawning hagiography.

Save for two songs encapsulating the enemies Kennedy made (along with Robert Kennedy, his Attorney General) and presaging the tragedy that was to come, the show really isn't very dark, but my two cents worth of advice to those involved in Kennedy would be this:

Find ways to make the audience smile, particularly with the musical numbers.

Yes, I realize this is a musical about a president who led America to the brink of nuclear war, who had a Svengali-like father that likely helped orchestrate his election, who repeatedly betrayed his wife and who was murdered at 46. It probably doesn’t lend itself to a lot of ebullient singing and dancing.

But in trying to find a way to easily separate musicals that are truly special from the ones that are just OK, I can’t think of any great musical that doesn’t at some point bring a smile (or several) to the faces of those watching, typically through extraordinarily catchy songs.

Even musicals with somber overtones—Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Evita, Rent, Spring Awakening and more—have multiple musical numbers that are truly joyous, or at least sublime enough to be heartwarming.

So in my estimation, what Kennedy needs is more than just songs that tell the tale of JFK’s life in a professional, tuneful way. It needs songs that truly make people smile.

And as the guy who wrote “Candy Man” (from Willy Wonka) and “Talk to the Animals,” (from Dr. Doolittle), Bricusse is clearly capable of doing this. It won’t be easy to find the right balance, but Kennedy needs a good bit more oomph if it wants to effectively shine.

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