Bad Bet

Photo: Illustration by Adam Larsen

No, William Bolcom insists, his Casino Paradise is not about Donald Trump. And no, this two-act cabaret opera has nothing to do with James Bond or Italian movie theaters. Actually, Bolcom confesses in a program note, he himself isn’t entirely sure what the show is all about. Composed to a text by Arnold Weinstein and first performed in 1990 at Philadelphia’s American Music Theater Festival, Casino Paradise recently enjoyed a lively stand-up-and-deliver concert performance in the Allen Room at the Time Warner Center, the latest installment in Lincoln Center’s “American Songbook” series, and I wonder if anyone, even after it was all over, had gotten the point, if indeed there is one.

The characters do look suspiciously familiar. A wealthy developer named Fergeson builds a gambling casino in a sleepy seaside resort “somewhere between Galveston and Atlantic City,” a project that creates havoc with his dysfunctional family, especially with his children Stanley and Cis, and divides the townsfolk. So far so Trump-like, but in Act Two, the plot thickens and events take us elsewhere. Our developer is laid low by a heart attack and an enigmatic nurse appears to take him in hand. They fall in love, Fergeson is redeemed, greed is dispelled, the promise of riches evaporates, the kids turn out okay after all, and suddenly it looks like morning in America. (This is, by the way, the newly revised and partially rewritten Casino Paradise. The original 1990 show ended much more bleakly, but apparently both Weinstein and Bolcom prefer the upbeat dénouement.)

Unfortunately the new version isn’t much more focused than the old. The main problem is Weinstein’s libretto, which tries hard to make “corruption with a conscience” a witty premise, but his strained rhymes and self-conscious turns of phrase seldom hit the mark, and the characters remain half-formed and uninteresting caricatures. Not long into the piece, Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock inevitably come to mind, edgy left-wing satires that protested a materialistic society much more effectively. Casino Paradise clearly takes these superior works as a model, but I’m afraid both leave this pallid echo standing in the dust. The show was further upstaged by the new Allen Room itself: a truly theatrical, spectacular space with a two-story picture window that gives the audience a panoramic view of Columbus Circle and twinkling city night lights that run down the length of 59th Street.

Even if it can’t save the day, Bolcom’s scintillating score has its own special allure—not for the first time has music triumphed over a problematic text, offering one ear-grabbing number after another. What recent Broadway musical has rejoiced in a more haunting ballad than the lovesick Cis’s “Night, Make My Day”? Or a more in-your-face musical monologue than Fergeson’s “The Curse,” which works up into a fine fury simply by ingeniously exploiting a basic habanera rhythm? Bolcom’s stylistic range here is typically all-embracing—jazz, rag, dirty blues, a wide assortment of dance genres, all leavened with the sort of bi-tonal harmonic pungency and contrapuntal sleight of hand he must have picked up long ago from his studies with Darius Milhaud. Not one number takes an easy way out, and something of musical interest is going on in every measure.

Nor could anyone accuse the nine soloists of lacking commitment or energy. This sophisticated music demands real voices, not the toneless barkers and belters one hears on Broadway these days, and the piece could hardly hope for more potent vocal leads than Rachel Ulanet (Cis), Lee Zarrett (Stanley), and Martin Vidnovic (Fergeson). Joan Morris’s deliciously fragile presence and sly delivery even managed to make something credible out of the impossible role of the nurse, while everyone seemed vitalized by the glittering two-piano team of Sam Davis and Cathy Venable. Too bad about the words: Casino Paradise is unlikely to get any better than this.

Casino Paradise
William Bolcom.
Allen Room at Time Warner Center. February 9.

Bad Bet