One reason for the success of the delightful Encores! is that these semi-staged musicals minimize what is most perishable about the genre: the book. So it is that its last offering, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, dispensed with some of Alan Jay Lerner’s fable about telepathy and reincarnation, the maunderings of an author terrified of mortality, and concentrated on its humor, nicely polished up by David Ives.
The adorably American, naïve, and unself-confident Daisy Gamble astounds the psychiatrist Mark Bruckner with her ESP. Under hypnosis, she reveals that she was once Melinda Welles, a haughty, eighteenth-century London belle, drowned in a shipwreck while escaping to America from an unhappy British marriage. As this two-tiered heroine, Kristin Chenoweth is delectable, though she cannot quite escape her American self.
It is not that Lerner’s libretto lacks humor or poignancy, but that it tries to do too much. What saved the 1965 show was the ear-tickling score by Lerner and Burton Lane, enhanced by the performance – or was it personality? – of Barbara Harris. The score, in its fine Robert Russell Bennett orchestration, is more than safe in the hands of Rob Fisher and his Coffee Club Orchestra, and the new Daisy is just as lovable even if her Melinda doesn’t quite make it.
Miss Chenoweth has a sparkling voice, great comic timing, and an idiosyncratic way of speaking that epitomizes ingenue charm. But when British hauteur is called for, she no longer rings quite true, which may be partly the fault of the director, Mark Brokaw, whose dazzling early career has lately taken a dip. He may not have provided enough guidance for Melinda, and his casting of Peter Friedman as Dr. Bruckner was catastrophic.
Friedman sings compellingly and is a solid actor but lacks all romantic charisma, especially when confronted with Brent Barrett, who plays the dashing villain with a superabundance of looks, voice, acting, and bravura. Friedman, bald in front and on the top, may look like a therapist (and even more like a festooned footstool worn threadbare in the front) but generates not enough chemistry with his leading lady to fill one test tube.
The good Roger Bart was misdirected into ditsiness rather than the nerdy materialism called for as Daisy’s unworthy suitor. But Louis Zorich, as a Greek shipping tycoon hellbent on reincarnation, and Nancy Opel as a starchy secretary who briefly turns into a maenad, scored handsomely. The rather too faceless singing-and-dancing ensemble was not helped by John Carrafa’s fairly lackluster choreography, and Miss Chenoweth, being so very petite, made the male dancers unfelicitously look like colossi playing with a rag doll.
Still, with that captivating but all too little-known score and Kristin Chenoweth and Brett Barrett in fine fettle, you could clearly see that at least part of the show is a joy forever.