A Collaborative Portrait of Harry Chapin

Times Arts Editor

The songwriter-performer Harry Chapin was killed in a car crash on a Long Island freeway in 1981, when he was only 38. But he is to an amazing degree a felt if unseen presence on stage in “Lies and Legends.”

The revue-style presentation of two dozen of his songs has transferred to the Canon Theatre after a triumphant run at the Pasadena Playhouse, where it extracted huzzahs from Dan Sullivan in these pages and from most other critics.

The five very attractive singers--George Ball and his wife Amanda McBroom, Ron Orbach, Jon Herrera and Valerie Perri--are in some rather mystical way creating a kind of collaborative portrait of Chapin.


It’s partly the fragments of autobiography he put into his lyrics. But through the songs you also come to know his mind-set, his emotional landscape, a life-view that was both wry and passionate, flippant and concerned, and (as if he knew he hadn’t long) always with a melancholy awareness of the swiftness of passing time.

Like Bob Dylan, Chapin was obviously a poet first and a composer second. The narratives, the sketches from life, the insights into father and son and mother and daughter relationships, the glimpses of the echoing loneliness of love lost or never found--all this gives his songs their power, which is now and again overwhelming.

The melodies as melodies are serviceable rather than inspired. The inspiration is in the arrangements by Chapin’s brothers Tom and Stephen. A cello, musing along with the words like a sixth voice, lends the songs a tranquil beauty or, now and again, a sweet sadness that is unusually affecting.

Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral, who did the ingenious trap-doored sets for “Mail” at the Pasadena Playhouse last year, have here created an abstract, rather sharply raked arrangement of planking that lets the imagination play.

The evening is not uniformly successful. In any revue it’s a batting average you’re after, and this one is very high. “Sniper,” about the massacre at the University of Texas, seemed to me overwrought--Chapin stretching his muscles. So did “Dogtown,” a lament of fishing-port widows. Yet both songs arose in Chapin’s frequent theme of isolation and alienation.

Chapin’s song moods ranged from bawdy to somber. In any tone, the work is best when it seems most intimate, closest to his own experiences and observations.

The excitement of “Lies and Legends” is in the ingenuity of the production (directed by Sam Weisman) and the charm of the players. But the excitement lies as well in Chapin’s quite special alternation of the jovial and the jolting, the sense of urgency beneath the pleasures. The delights are never mindless.

It is an evening about the preciousness of time, and if you go away in high spirits, as you do indeed, it is because a rich entertainment has also been an illumination.

There are performances nightly except Monday, with two shows Saturday and Sunday. Information: (213) 859-2830.