Mar 5, 2014

Can't Keep a Good Score Down

When I spoke to Jeanine Tesori last year about her new Encores! summer series, at the top of her wish list of musicals she wanted to revive was Randy Newman's Faust, which had a mostly great concept album in 1993, a splashy bow at La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, and a not-quite-Broadway-bound production at the Goodman the following year. So I'm excited to see that Tesori has resurrected the musical for a one-night-only reading on July 1, and that Newman himself will sing the part of the Devil (as he did on the record). I happened to review the La Jolla premiere for Back Stage West, and here's what I wrote, in its entirety, in the Sept. 28, 1995 issue:
Faust is a grandiose goof of a musical that could only have sprung from the encyclopedic pop imagination of Randy Newman, a composer as idiosyncratically American as Charles Ives and a satirist as free-ranging and deceptively straightforward as Jules Feiffer. Newman also wrote Faust’s book, which counts as his first play ever, and as such it’s a shticky mess with a lot of blasphemy and irony, but not storytelling, on its mind. He’s clearly having so much fun putting on a show--with the remarkably complementary support of director Michael Greif, an inspired production team, and a seamless cast--that he can’t be bothered to make sense of it all.

In place of a story, Newman presents a tart vaudeville parody of a cosmology. Heaven is all green fairways and rousing gospel numbers, while Hell is a stuffy trailer where honkytonk and soft-shoe prevail. Between the two is a world of senseless violence and heedless materialism that baffles the devil (David Garrison, a kvetchy bantam) almost as much as it does the Lord (cuddly, mellifluous Ken Page). When Lucifer explains to Henry Faust (Kurt Deutsch), a grungy freshman brat, that he’ll gain the world but lose his soul, Faust responds, “So what’s the catch?”

Along the way, Newman has an excuse for several rousing blues romps, ragtimes, rock sendups, and Kern-pure Americana. Eight musicians and the cast--especially Page and a clarion Bellamy Young--exult in the score’s challenges, as does choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett. James Youmans’ kitschy sets get an assist from Alex W. Papalexis’ projections, while costumer Mark Wendland riffs as wide a palette of periods as the score.

Above all, it is creative joy that sings from every element of the show, and it’s Faust’s saving grace. It is the sound of artists pumping fresh blood into the American musical, and it’s why we get so much more out of this, for all its faults, than any new musical in recent memory. 
Not sure what the concert reading might mean for Faust's future, but the last time Tesori put on an Encores! one-night concert, it turned out well.

For further reading, here's Christgau's take on the record, Laurie Winer's review of the La Jolla production in the LA Times, and Brantley's review of the Chicago production in the NY Times.

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