I came late to the party, having just seen Harry Connick Jr. in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever this past weekend. But after reading a recent rather harsh New York column regarding that show from a certain fellow critic of my previous acquaintance (met him during an American Theatre Critics convocation in Florida), I feel compelled to add my two-cents. In fairness I should mention that when a theatre critic has the pre-matinee opportunity to soak up the sunshine and special energy of the cheerful throng in New York’s Times Square on a January Saturday afternoon with the unheard of winter temperature of sixty-two degrees, it is bound to put that critic in a good mood. An hour later, when the St. James Theatre’s checkered curtain/panel rose on the oft-criticized show, my own good mood was only enhanced by this colorful and clever revival of the 1965 original from Burton Lane (music) & Alan J. Lerner (lyrics). That production, with its book also written by Mr. Lerner, lasted only 300 performances.
But the show now sports a new Peter Parnell book that, while based on the original, brings an interesting contemporary twist to the plot. Combined with optically eye-popping staging, a fine cast headed by handsome pop crooner, Connick, and crisp direction from the show’s re-conceiver, Michael Mayer, we have a clear winner from On A Clear Day.
The solid overture (Music Director/Conductor, Lawrence Yurman) focused on the several more familiar themes in a show with many less familiar tunes.
The hypnotic atmosphere that is central to the plot is quickly established with the scenic designs of Christine Jones and lighting designs of Kevin Adams, that seem to combine throughout the performance to create a kind of grand and ever-changing optical illusion of whirling color. The concept seemed a bit off-beat at first, but soon became the perfect accompaniment to this tale of psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Bruckner, (Connick) and the young florist, David (David Turner), who seeks the doctor’s help (through hypnosis) in an effort to quit smoking so he can move in with his gay lover, Warren (Drew Gehling). We audience members are quickly drawn into the plot from the first moment as Dr. Bruckner steps forward to address us as the professional psychiatric convocation to which the doctor is explaining the extraordinary medical case of young David. As the doctor’s tale unfolds we learn the love of his own life has passed away some years before as Connick offers a tender rendering of the lovely, “She Isn’t You.” It was warm, embracing, Connick-at-his-best, and cast a Sinatra-like spell over the audience.
As the doctor’s lecture continues, we first meet the young florist tending his flowers in the shop and Turner opens with a vocally sweet, “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here.”
Turner’s lighthearted portrayal gives us an earnest, yet innocent character to root for. When David’s friend, Muriel (cutely played by Sarah Stiles), first introduces the chain smoker to the doctor, the young man quickly proves to be a first-rate candidate for hypnosis. While under the doctor’s spell, David enters a past life regression revealing he was once a girl singer named Melinda during the big band era of the ’40’s. Perhaps it was at that point that some critics lost their way to enthusiasm for this production. The plot does require a willingness to suspend disbelief, but once that barrier is crossed, an intriguing adventure in reincarnation awaits. During each amusing hypnotic session with the doctor, David fades from view and the lovely Melinda (Jessie Mueller) emerges to take his place as the lad describes his past life as a chanteuse. Far-fetched? You bet! But it works — if you let it. The lovely Mueller is not only easy on the eyes, but sings beautifully as well. And speaking of eyes, her elegantly jazzy delivery of “Open Your Eyes,” was absolutely thrilling. The musical fun continues when we meet David’s gang of pals who, along with Muriel, make up the show’s cheerful ensemble for numbers like the merry, “Wait ’Till We’re Sixty-Five,” the rousing, “On the S.S. Bernard Cohn,” and the second act’s, “When I’m Being Born Again.” Granted, the choreography for such numbers (designer, JoAnn M. Hunter), while cute, is nothing to write home about. But lightweight choreography works quite well when Mueller’s silken-voiced, “You’re All the World to Me” evolves into an amusing trio-dance as she joins David and the doctor in a kind of ménage à trois ballet reflecting Bruckner’s growing infatuation with this singing phantom from the past. That infatuation becomes central to the plot as David begins to misinterpret the doctor’s affections for the elusive Melinda as being advances toward him.
Music continues to rule the day with Connick’s relaxed styling for, “Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?” In the role of Warren, the handsome Mr. Gehling serenades David
dreamily with the romantic, “Love With All the Trimmings,” a number he will give a soaring reprise in Act Two.
Meanwhile, Bruckner’s colleague, Dr. Sharone Stein (Kerry O’Malley) has eyes for the doctor herself, as becomes abundantly clear when O’Malley brilliantly anchors the ensemble reprise of “Open Your Eyes.” As for Miss Mueller, her warm and gentle song, “Melinda,” was the perfect accompaniment to her own glamorous and ghostly apparition at the close of Act One.
In Act Two, David’s continued hypno-therapy reveals Melinda’s big band debut as a 1940’s songbird. There is a nicely staged nightclub scene featuring fine backup singers in colorful costumes and hats of the period (Designer, Catherine Zuber).
Melinda’s big number is a lively, “Every Night at Seven.” The entranced doctor then imagines stepping into her bygone world, as Connick joins her in singing the lushly romantic classic, “Too Late Now.” The song seemed to symbolize the frustrated romantic longings that are perhaps an all-too-common part of the human experience. Another dramatic highlight of the second act is the near-operatic quartet of, “(S)he Wasn’t You,” from Connick, O’Malley, Gehling and Turner. It was a showcase for four fine voices. Another vocally powerful moment comes when David discovers that Mark’s flirtations have really been with the Melinda of his subconscious and not with him. He lashes out with the stunning, “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” Stunning as well was the smooth, polished crooning of Mr. Connick’s, “Come Back to Me.” Gehling joins him in that song as Warren and Mark mutually pine for loves they fear they have lost.
There is a dramatic and almost Casablanca-like dimension to the final scenes and lovely finale, the details of which are best left to the discovery of future audiences. I hope there will be many. Meanwhile I am reminded of a discussion about reincarnation that I had years ago with colleagues debating its existence. “Absolutely!” declared my friend Arlene. “You have to keep coming back until you get it right!” One thing must be certain. Harry Connick Jr. will not have to come back. He really got it right this time around.
ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER continues through January 29th at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street, NYC. For tickets visit Telecharge.com, call (212) 239-6200 or Outside the Tri-State area call (800) 432-7250. Discounts available for groups of 15 or more and Premium Tickets are also available.