THEATER REVIEW : The Score Is 'Faust's' Salvation : Newman's Music Carries Production Bedeviled by Awkward Storytelling

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The musical theater got a shot in the arm on Sunday night when "Randy Newman's Faust" had its long-awaited premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse. Here is a score, thrilling and stage-worthy, that turns its back on the overblown, joyless posturing of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a score that brings idiosyncratic, smart humor back into the American musical.

From the first song, "Glory Train," a rousing, rocking gospel number sung by "the Lord" and his white-robed angels in heaven, the theater fills with music that is joyous, ironic, bluesy, even moving, and with lyrics that are deft and funny.

That's the score. Then there's the rest of the show.

Here's the bad news: Wonderful songs are wedged oddly into the story, or are introduced for ludicrously little reason. A character will say "You know, I realized something!" and then launch into a number. Director Michael Greif, set designer James Youmans, and a strong company of singers and dancers emphasize the show's playfulness. But a great team effort cannot hide the fact that Newman is playing with a form whose ground rules he has not mastered: It is often impossible to tell whether he is parodying the musical form or just has no idea how to introduce a song.

As in Goethe's version, which Newman has loosely adapted, this "Faust" centers on a wager between God and the devil for the soul of one Henry Faust (Kurt Deutsch). In Goethe, Faust is a scholar whose life has become so barren he no longer cares for his soul; in Newman's "Faust" he is a heavy-metal moron who doesn't know he has a soul. He offers no resistance to the devil, played by David Garrison as a Groucho Marx smart-mouth who gets booted out of heaven because his gift for pointed irony does not sit well with the all-knowingness of God.

The lord is played by Ken Page, whose voice is as rich and mellow as a church organ. (Page has an effortless godliness; he's been practicing since he played Old Deuteronomy in the original cast of "Cats.") True, this lord is a little disconnected from what's happening on Earth--rather than get involved, he plays golf or checks things out on his gold laptop. But once someone gets to heaven, he is a mighty, benevolent and comforting God.

A comforting God? By Randy Newman? This is a man who has been wrestling with a mordant and very funny theology since at least 1972, when the wry diety in "God's Song" (on the album "Sail Away") declared: "I burn down your cities--how blind you must be/I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we/You all must be crazy to put your faith in me/That's why I love mankind."

And in the new all-star recording of "Faust" (released last week on Reprise), James Taylor sings the part of an egotistical, all-too-human lord, eliciting his followers' hosannas while he laughs in their faces as a way of explanation for how badly things go down below.

Now, in what is possibly a concession to the pieties of some imagined musical theater audience, God has been defanged. He might still show a tiny willful streak (in the terrific number "How Great Our Lord"), but his naughtiness has been mightily shorn. Now, God is as fuzzy and warm as you'd imagine if you were on your way to a stereotypical heaven with a truly remorseful soul.

And this Faust is a disappointment, not only to the lord and the devil. With the devil's money and guidance, he transforms from a Butt-head to a well-groomed Beavis. Margaret, his lady love, played by Bellamy Young with a lovely voice and moving face, is as pure as the undriven snow, and good, and kind, and forgiving. She lives in honest poverty in South Bend, Ind., where everyone wears white shoes. Even though God sent Cupid to hit her with an arrow, it is still hard to accept her devotion to Faust. The two sing an exquisite love song, "Feels Like Home," which is virtually wasted, given the inadequate Faust that Newman has supplied (also, Michael Roth's otherwise excellent orchestrations treat the song casually, as if it were just another pop ballad. It is not. Hear the Bonnie Raitt version, with Newman's arrangement, on the new CD to really experience the song).

Sherie Rene Scott plays Martha, a no-nonsense sexpot who takes some ill-gotten gains to Costa Rica. To celebrate her badness, she sings "Hard Currency" with a chorus of suddenly adoring South Americans. Here is a number that needs almost no introduction; its purpose is to give pleasure, which it does.

But more often than not, Newman's songs are bewildering offerings to the musical theater gods. One such number, the beautiful "Little Island," is sung by Angel Rick (Christopher Sieber), a young Englishman who tenderly recalls his war-torn country, remembering his slaughtered friends in a haunting lyric--"Only the best were lost." Is he also harboring a devil-like grudge against the lord?

That's virtually the last we hear of Angel Rick. Newman is a great pop writer who can tell complete stories in song, who can write character as sharply and efficiently as, say, Hammerstein or Sondheim. That does not mean he is necessarily capable of finessing those songs into a show in a way that builds a story or makes sense in a dramatic arc. "Little Island" is an island of a song, adrift and cut off from the story.

With the excellent, eight-piece band in full view of the audience, the songs are good enough to drive the show, whether they are integrated or not. It's easy to forgive this musical its sins, even if they are frequent. So, "Faust" is not perfect. Thank God it exists at all.

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"Faust," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 29. $23-$34. (619) 550-1010, TDD/Voice (619) 550-1030). Running time: three hours.

Ken Page: The Lord

David Garrison: The Devil

Kurt Deutsch: Henry Faust

Bellamy Young: Margaret

Sherie Rene Scott Martha

Christopher Sieber: Angel Rick

Brian Evers: Teddy, Angel Charles

Melissa Jones: Angel Girl

H. Clent Bowers: Chester Fagan

With: Lindsay Marie Sablan, Michael Hune, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Michael Potts, Andre Carthen, Jonathan Brody, Erin Hill, Henry Aronson, Joshua W. Coleman, Shelley Dickinson, Melissa Haizlip, Marissa Perez, Erin Ryan.

A La Jolla Playhouse production. Music, book and lyrics by Randy Newman. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreography Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Music direction Joseph Church. Orchestrations Michael Roth. Sets James Youmans. Costumes Mark Wendland. Lights Christopher Akerlind. Sound Steve Canyon Kennedy. Projections Alex W. Papalexis. Stage manager Frank Lombardi.

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