How good an idea is making a musical of Captains Courageous? Mention of Kipling’s novel is buried in the program, but this adaptation is clearly based on the 1937 movie, which isn’t credited. No matter; I’m perfectly pleased to credit the writer Patrick Cook and composer Frederick Freyer with the pittance we get.
To make us feel as if we are on an 1887 fishing schooner, we’d need some way of experiencing the vessel’s pitch and roll, the play of the waves, the wind in the sails, the salt air. None of that at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where Captains Courageous, The Musical – as the show, with some wishful thinking, bills itself – is playing but not swaying. The nifty design team of Derek McLane (scenery) and Brian MacDevitt (lighting) comes up with a tilted platform of planks against a backdrop of sea and sky, which does more for the cyclorama than for a ship, and bathes it all in magnificently changing, moody lights. Even so, they might have distributed individual salt shakers to convey more of the sea and the men who, though afloat, are the salt of the earth.
It is a kiddie yarn, of the spoiled rich brat Harvey E. Cheyne, who falls overboard from Papa’s liner and is fished out by Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman in his dinghy, line-fishing off a trawling schooner. The boat, under the command of the doughty Captain Troop, is in competition with a fishing steamer (forgive a landlubber’s possibly faulty terminology) representing all that nasty,
newfangled progress that trusty traditionis up against. When the arrogant kid isbrought aboard, the old (and young) tarsconsider him at best a nuisance, at worsta Jonah, so Manuel and the Captain mustexercise all their skill and authority tohave him not come to harm and, instead,come of age.
The set – that oblong platform – revolves after each scene for a new, not very different view of the ship. The crew is kept busy tossing ropes, heaving empty crates, emptying nets into the hold, and doing other chores that, given the limitations of the stage, especially this one, look somehow (dare I say?) rigged. It’s rather like that comedy routine where a mime is desperately tugging at a rope whose other end is offstage; when, with tremendous effort, he hauls it in, there is no one and nothing at the other end.
There is also something sterile about a show that is all men and not even an offstage woman. It creates a lopsided world, made more monotonous by Lynne Meadow’s staging, in which all the cast, singing up rather less than a storm, rushes forward for the finale of yet another sea chantey or, more likely, the same one, since every number here, except the pleasing “Regular Fellows,” sounds exactly like the last one. Although too handsome, Treat Williams is a charming Manuel, but Brandon Espinoza is a routine kid. The others have little to do except to do that little over and over again; Jim Stanek, at least, despite his Slavic name, has a fine tenor – genuine chantey Irish.