Is there a play-doctor in the house?
A concerned onlooker would have reason to make this plea during “Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical.” Unfortunately, there’s not much anyone can do in a case in which sentimentality has spread to the bones.
The show, which had its world premiere Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse, is right to hedge on calling itself a musical. Written and directed by Josh Ravetch, “Chasing Mem’ries” is a schmaltzy showcase for the undeniable talents of Tyne Daly, who deserves better.
A drama with songs might be a more accurate description, except the story is thinly contrived and the musical numbers barely existent. Let’s call it a scenario with heavy underscoring and a swirl of Alan and Marilyn Bergman lyrics that are sometimes spoken, occasionally hummed and almost never robustly sung.
Why would an actor of Daly’s gifts agree to star in such a misbegotten work? Clearly, she felt a connection to her character, Victoria, the widow hiding in her attic amid a lifetime of marital memories as a crowd gathers outside on her lawn for her husband’s memorial service. As hard-bitten as she is tender-hearted, she can’t figure out how to move forward on her own after 57 years of blissful marriage.
Daly brings to the role her sweet and sour realism, slingshot comic timing and emotional heft — the same qualities that won her a passel of Emmy Awards for her work on “Cagney & Lacey” and “Judging Amy.” She even provides a glimpse of the gritty virtuosity that earned her a Tony for her performance in “Gypsy.”
Daly can act a song better than many musical theater specialists can sing one, but the material doesn’t challenge her. Her biggest test, which she passes easily, is to keep theatergoers from fleeing. Her stage presence alone is worth the price of admission and she hits her exclamations of grief with piercing fury, but don’t expect much else.
I’m afraid not even the mightiest of thespians can make silky repartee from Ravetch’s hoary ear. The lines Daly’s Victoria exchanges first with Scott Kradolfer, who portrays her son, Mason, and then with Robert Forster (another misused talent), who plays the imagined ghost of her husband, Franklin, come in two varieties: shtick and schlock. If Victoria isn’t firing off a sitcom zinger, she’s mourning the loss of the love of her life in language that has the clichéd ring of an out-of-date TV movie of the week.
Ravetch, who collaborated with Carrie Fisher on “Wishful Drinking,” seems naturally drawn to star vehicles. But this one is unusually clunky in its setup. For more than 90 minutes, Daly’s Victoria keeps her guests waiting while she peruses her husband’s old dictionary (he was some kind of literary academic with the “soul of a poet”), rummages through a trunk containing his wedding suit and listens wistfully to records on an antique turntable.
It’s not always clear if the music is supposed to be emanating from the turntable or from the orchestra trio that Mason has engaged for the memorial. But this is a minor point in a show that has larger credibility problems. I found myself wondering how the production’s musicians (partly visible in the pit) were able to resist falling asleep to the beddy-bye strains they were playing. The music is from a variety of artists who have collaborated with the Bergmans, but it all runs runs together in a nostalgic blur.
A few of the song are newly minted, but the mood is palpably retrospective, which is a polite way of saying passé. “Where Do You Start?” establishes the elegiac tone: “How do you separate the present from the past?/How do you deal with all the things you thought would last?/That didn’t last?” The touching melody by Johnny Mandel is overused in a show that would rather push buttons than create a believable portrait.
Forster mentions his disastrous singing auditions in his program bio, where he thanks Ravetch for reminding him how “Rex Harrison spoke-sang his song.” He manages to speak-sing with resonant crackle, but his only business as Franklin is to convince Victoria to squeeze every last bit of juice from her life.
It’s not easy animating characters whose feelings are all talked about rather than earned. Mason’s long speeches about his romantic troubles with Franny, his astronaut fiancée, cry out for the paring scissors. For all the information we’re force-fed, I was having difficulty tracking whether this woman was absent because she dumped Mason or was floating around in outer space.
Apparently, Franny has been chosen for a Mars mission, a five-year voyage that Mason frets will ludicrously redefine the term “long-distance relationship.” But the only justification for him going on about his problems is to propound the lesson that, as Franklin vocalizes with masculine scratch, “What matters most is that we loved at all.”
Musicals, even of the quasi kind, are a reliable font of hackneyed wisdom, designed to elicit tears by gunpoint if necessary. “Chasing Mem’ries” doesn’t tell you anything a store-bought sympathy card couldn’t more poetically express. The annoying title — the apostrophe is presumably borrowed from the Bergmans’ Oscar-winning hit with Marvin Hamlisch, “The Way We Were,” which Daly conversationally dribbles out at the end — indicates a writer unable to resist the sappiest of effects.
If the production feels trapped in the attic, don’t blame set designer Tony Fanning, who’s only following Ravetch’s glitchy instructional manual. Costume designer Kate Bergh, on the other hand, has some explaining to do.
Franklin’s slacks made me wonder if we were to think he had just rolled out of the grave, but that would make no sense because the character’s ashes are prominently sitting in an urn. To make wardrobe matters worse, Daly’s skirt, worn under a tunic of sorts, fell down during a pivotal moment between Victoria and Mason. Trouper that she is, Daly hiked the fugitive garment back up above her waist and pressed on, but Bergh’s costume added insult to injury.
Don’t count on this different kind of musical catching on any time soon. But let’s hope Daly’s outing in “Chasing Mem’ries” isn’t in vain. To the composers and librettist reading this right now: Do yourselves a favor and write this luminous performer a musical that allows her to do more than crack wise while marinating in misty memories.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Chasing Mem’ries: A Different Kind of Musical’
Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 17
Tickets: $32-$90 (subject to change)
Info: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org