Feature

Harps and Angels

Harps and Angels contains just enough story line to tie Randy Newman’s songs together.

Mark Taper Forum
Los Angeles
(213) 628-2772

***

At long last, someone has created the right theatrical vehicle for Randy Newman’s character-driven songs, said Paul Hodgins in the Orange County, Calif., Register. Several previous stage productions have been built around Newman’s work, but each has strained to capture his repertoire’s “beauty, moral complexity, and through line of human tragedy.” Because Newman’s satirical ballads tend to be “self-contained mini-plays,” they “defied integration into a larger conception.” But director Jerry Zaks and creator Jack Viertel have smartly structured Harps and Angels as a sort of revue/musical hybrid, where most characters “exist for only a fleeting moment or two.” The resulting show never tries too hard “to be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Viertel obviously has “a profound understanding of the range of Newman’s music,” said Steven Leigh Morris in LA Weekly. Containing just enough story line to tie the songs together, Harps and Angels follows “Newman stand-in” Michael McKean on a digressive journey through life in 20th-century America. Whether he’s donning a faux-cowboy persona in “Big Hat, No Cattle” or that of a desperate lecher in “Shame,” McKean infuses each song with “wry understatement.” But he is far from the only standout performer in the ensemble. One particularly unforgettable moment: “glorious” Adriane Lenox’s soulful rendition of “Louisiana 1927,” Newman’s song about the Great Mississippi Flood, which, in post-Katrina America, sounds painfully relevant.

Despite such “otherworldly” contributions, the show remains more “earthbound than celestial,” said Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times. Viertel clearly hoped to create a night of entertainment that would be more than a “dopey jukebox affair.” But the participation of a “major nonprofit theater” sets up the expectation that “an original musical is headed our way.” In the end, all the “narrative tidbits” the audience is offered never really coalesce, leaving this “somewhat stiffly arrayed song cycle” in a sort of limbo between cabaret and play. Given the enduring appeal of Newman’s work, however, true devotees of “L.A.’s favorite songwriting son” may not mind.

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